The meaningful relationships we cultivate with each other create a sense of community and support that are often crucial in navigating daily life and its stressors. It’s not hard to guess that good friends — the kind that are there equally during the good and bad times — positively impact our physical and mental well-being. These friends encourage healthy habits, like exercise and healthy eating, and can be instrumental in discouraging bad ones.¹ The benefits of maintaining these sometimes hard-won bonds are worth all the effort we put into them.
Don’t let all your friendships remain long-distance or on social media, though. Research shows that not only is it fun to spend time with your friends in person, but the more you do so, the more health benefits you’re likely to experience. Maybe you’ll take a weekend mini-trip to the beach or a week-long stay at a resort. The vacation itself might be refreshing, fun, and restorative, but sharing the experience with friends has benefits beyond just having a good time. Read on to learn more about how friendship, the lack of it, and spending time with your friends can positively affect your well-being.
Perhaps you’ve been through thick and thin with your friends since middle school, or maybe you’ve just recently made a friend that seems to be improving your outlook on life. Either way, it’s not a coincidence that you feel better physically and mentally the more you spend time with them. Having meaningful friendships can:²
Friendships based in trust, reciprocity, and support have been shown to both increase and predict your life satisfaction, while lower-quality friendships seem to be a source of anxiety.³ Likewise, low-quality friendships can negatively affect our physical health. One study found that those with stressful friendships reported more chronic illnesses, while participants with stronger bonds reported being happier and more satisfied with life.⁴ If you’re feeling happy and healthy with an active social life, chances are you have a good group of friends. If not, it might be a good idea to reevaluate which friendships are worth keeping for your well-being.
Meaningful, supportive friendships are even stronger predictors of health and happiness than our relationships with family, especially as we get older. This might be due to the process of social interaction, connection, and bonding that occurs with complete strangers over time. The perspective, support, and companionship we give to each other in a friendship enriches our lives in a way that remaining in a bubble of familial relations cannot.⁴ Even though friendships can be difficult to maintain and are ultimately optional, the benefits for both parties outweigh the effort it takes to keep them alive. The reverse — not having any meaningful friendships at all — can have devastating impacts on your health.
Not having meaningful friendships (or having low-quality ones) for a prolonged period can cause chronic loneliness, social isolation, and stress. According to a national survey by Cigna, 58% of Americans reported feeling lonely in 2021; these numbers are higher for young and marginalized people, but rates of social isolation increase with age. Knowing how social isolation and increased stress levels can impact your health and well-being is important, as is knowing how to combat it.
If you’re feeling especially stressed and isolated from others, reaching out to a trusted healthcare provider may help you identify how to rebuild a sense of community.
While the two often go hand in hand, loneliness and social isolation are not synonymous. Loneliness is more than simply feeling alone: it’s also how satisfied you are with your social life (your interactions, acquaintances, and friendships). You can be at a party, making small talk with people here and there, and still feel lonely because of a lack of meaningful social interaction and connectedness.⁵
Social isolation, on the other hand, is more severe. People who are socially isolated don’t have any social networks at all due to a mental or physical health condition, old age, or another factor.
According to health experts, the need for companionship is a human instinct necessary for survival and overall well-being. One study observing 309,000 participants found that lack of meaningful connections is linked to depression and a 50% increase in the risk of early death, making it as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and twice as harmful as obesity.³ Loneliness and isolation can also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by 30%.⁵
Having healthy, active friendships only becomes more important as we age. While more younger people in the 2021 Cigna survey reported feeling lonely, older people are more likely to experience the health consequences of chronic loneliness or social isolation. This higher rate of isolation is often due to infrequent human interaction received in nursing homes or living alone, the loss of regular contact with family and friends, or mobility or functionality problems due to their age. According to the CDC, chronic loneliness and isolation in older people is linked to a 50% increased risk of dementia and higher rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety. Conversely, older people with regular social interactions with activity groups, friends, and family tend to have better health outcomes, such as a lower risk of death.⁵
Life can be difficult, and not having the support of strong, supportive friendships not only leads to loneliness and social isolation but also increased stress levels. Chronic or frequent stress in and of itself can cause serious harm to both our mental and physical well-being. When the stress hormone is constantly triggered, it puts the body in a prolonged state of “fight or flight.” Increased cortisol levels can disrupt your body’s natural state, leading to the following problems:⁶
Strong friendships have been shown to reduce stress levels by allowing you to have a safe space to talk about your problems without feeling judged (and having fun in the process). Friends can also point you towards healthy ways to further manage stress, such as seeing a therapist or counselor.
Spending time with friends has also been shown to release oxytocin, the happiness hormone. These bursts of oxytocin elicit a rewarding feeling when you have positive social interactions, such as spending time with your closest friends, talking, laughing, or experiencing new things together. Oxytocin also promotes prosocial behaviors, such as establishing trust, offering comfort or consolation, and sharing, so being cared for helps you care for others better too. ⁷
Maintaining friendships in the age of social media and digital meet-ups is hard. You might be busy with work, or perhaps you’ve become a little too used to the pandemic lifestyle, staying home, receding into solitude with Netflix and takeout, and only getting social contact with others through text. However, the science of maintaining friendships is straightforward: the best way to maintain and even strengthen the bond of friendships is to spend time together physically, not via FaceTime, Zoom, or the occasional phone call.
Research on the impact of friendship has shown that the less often you see or spend time with your friends, the less satisfied you become. This can make you feel less satisfied with your life and even lonely despite having friends.² A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 found that this kind of lower community attachment leads to more frequent feelings of loneliness and its corresponding mental health impacts, strengthening the claim that strong social bonds lead to better mental health. While it does take work on both ends to make a friendship lasting, it wouldn’t have such a positive impact on our health if it wasn’t worth the effort.
Struggling to make meaningful friendships? Consider joining local clubs or finding people in your area with the same interests as you. This could look like a book club, a local sports team, or even volunteering at a nonprofit. Strong social bonds take work and dedication, but they are worth it because of their positive impact on nearly every facet of our lives. Friendships are investments to make ourselves and the people we love happier, healthier, and more content with life.
The stresses of life without friends can be harmful, but that doesn’t mean a life with a robust support system is stress-free. Managing stress is just as vital to our health and well-being. One way to do this is to step away from the stressors of everyday life, gain perspective, and have fun. Taking a trip or vacation has its health benefits, too:⁸
If you haven’t seen your friends in a while, taking a trip with them is the perfect way to take time off, strengthen your friendship, and improve your health. As we’ve mentioned earlier, spending time with your friends causes a release of oxytocin, which elicits an anti-stress response. It reduces stress levels by lowering cortisol and blood pressure and increasing your pain threshold. Furthermore, oxytocin promotes prosocial behaviors like sharing, offering comfort, being trustworthy, generous, and even feeling protective, all characteristics of being a good friend.⁹ Take advantage of your days off and spend them with your friends: go on hikes, visit museums, or book an all-inclusive cruise. The possibilities are endless, as are the benefits to your health and friendships.
 Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. (2022, January 12). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/friendships/art-20044860
 Harvard Health. (2010, December 1). The health benefits of strong relationships. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-strong-relationships
 Amati, V., Meggiolaro, S., Rivellini, G., & Zaccarin, S. (2018). Social relations and life satisfaction: the role of friends. Genus, 74(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41118-018-0032-z
 Chopik, W., Henion, & University, M. S. (n.d.). Are friends better for us than family? Phys.org. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2017-06-friends-family.html
 Novotney, A. (2019, May). The risks of social isolation. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation
 Mayo Clinic Staff. (2021, July 8). Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. Mayo Clinic; Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
 Sloat, S. (2017, September 28.). Oxytocin Brain Experiment Shows Why Making Friends Feels So Good. Inverse. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.inverse.com/article/36910-oxytocin-love-hormone-brain
 Zucker, R. (2020, August 11). Thinking of Skipping Vacation? Don’t! Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/08/thinking-of-skipping-vacation-dont
 Uvnäs-Moberg, K., & Petersson, M. (2005). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing. Zeitschrift Für Psychosomatische Medizin Und Psychotherapie, 51(1), 57–80. https://doi.org/10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57