We live in a world that suffers from an epidemic of loneliness. In our hyper-connected, social media-driven world, more than ever we seem disconnected from real, meaningful relationships and especially from invested friendships with our peers.
During the holiday season, this loneliness can become more apparent than ever, and I am reminded of study after study that highlights the immense value of friendships in bettering our physical and mental health.
I think we as men, more than women, however, struggle to make lasting and meaningful connections with our male peers.
But why are male friendships so valuable? Why do we need them not just as children or young adults, but throughout our lives?
The facts might surprise you, especially when it comes to how friendship impacts long-term health.
3 Surprising Facts About Friendship, Loneliness, and Health
1) Loneliness can be as devastating as cigarettes, alcohol, and obesity.
If you pay attention to the latest crusades against various vices, they're probably not going to mention loneliness. But studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation can be just as detrimental for our health as nicotine, obesity, and the over-consumption of alcohol. How is that possible?
Loneliness raises levels of stress hormones and inflammation which can, in turn, increase one’s risk for heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and other ailments. The lack of social and mental stimulation caused by loneliness can increase one’s risk for conditions like dementia and cognitive decline, sleep disorders, immune deficiency, and depression. Being lonely, especially as an adult, is risking your health.
So if that’s true, having strong friendships throughout your life, even a handful of meaningful ones, can make the all the difference in the world for your long-term wellbeing.
2) Strong interpersonal relationships help you bounce back.
Friendships are absolutely critical in times of crisis. Most of us experience this first hand when in need of help—whether a child is sick, you need a hand during a move, or when a parent is ill or dying. Having friends to help you navigate life, wrestle with emotions, and have the freedom to express yourself is critical to your mental and emotional wellbeing. When we look at the science, however, we see even more than just anecdotal evidence in the value of a strong support network.
Studies have linked strong support networks to drastically higher rates of beating cancer. Social, emotional, psychological, and practical support all play a role in the fight and recovery, and this has led to, in this study, the revelation that the mortality rate for cancer patients may be higher when a support network—be it friends or family—is weak.
So whether you are facing challenges large or small, it is clear both in personal experiences and in empirical evidence that a network of friends enables us to bounce back from whatever comes our way in life.
3) The oldest community in the world is distinguished by their friendships.
In parts of Sardinia, an Italian island, lives the highest concentration of centenarians on earth. The first man to live to 110 hailed from the region. Though he died in 2012, he lived to see three centuries. While diet and exercise are often cited as indicators of longevity, in this particular region, it is relationships that keep people living longer. Their diets don’t hold special secrets. They don’t exercise more than usual.
But they, unlike so many of us, are constantly surrounded by friends and family, sharing life, meals, and community together—all of which contribute to a elevated mental health. These centenarians share the benefits of their social relationships between men and women in that the ratio is 1:1—wherein we usually see women outliving men in our society. They are rarely on medication, and they are usually lucid and cognizant even at an advanced age.
So what does this mean for us, as younger men in America? Well, it might mean spending more time with your parents and considering that this impacts their mental health and wellbeing. But it also means investing now in your personal relationships so that, as you age, you have these social outlets that help you maintain a healthy mind and a healthy body.
Forming these relationships can be challenging, but often all it takes is being intentional. Look around you, where you are. There are rich, meaningful friendships waiting to happen. They’re worth pursuing, too—for the sake of your health.
Have you found that a close friendship has impacted your wellbeing? Share your experience in the comment.