Why All Friends Come With Benefits
Human are social beings. From the first Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, man has lived in groups, partly because it’s safer and resources can be pooled, but mostly because we crave the company of others.
Research through the years has shown good social support – or even just thinking you have good social support – is a consistent predictor of health and wellbeing. When the chips are down, strong social networks reduce the mortality rate of patients who have heart attacks, cancer and stroke. Good friends cut the risk of depression in people with serious disease. Your pals can aid recovery from chronic pain. An Australian study in 2005 found having a network of good friends decreased the risk of death within 10 years. In fact, research unanimously shows good social networks lead to better health outcomes, both physically and mentally.
And new studies are showing the link between good friends and good health goes both ways. Professor Barbara Fredrickson, a leading proponent of Positive Psychology, has been conducting studies examining the connection between the vagus nerve and positive relationships. The vagus is part of a network of nerves that emerges from the brain stem and tethers your brain to your heart. It slows your heart a little bit each time you exhale, creating a healthy variability in your heart rate. It’s possible to measure how well the nerve is functioning by measuring cardiac vagal tone, and it has been found that people with higher vagal tone are less likely to have a heart attacks and can better regulate their blood glucose levels and inflammation. These people are also mentally healthier: They are better able to regulate their attention and emotions, and this leads to better social skills. Better social skills lead to closer and warmer relationships, and this leads to what Professor Fredrickson terms “micromoments of positivity resonance”. The more times during the day a person feels happy and connected to someone else, the healthier they become – physically and mentally. Or, as Professor Fredrickson puts it: “Love creates health and health creates love.”
The good news is that forging stronger relationships with people is entirely within your power. It doesn’t matter what your culture or demographic or socio-economic status is, everyone can make friends.
Nine tips for making friends
1. Go looking. Get out of the house and put yourself out there. Your new bestie is unlikely to randomly knock at your door.
2. Don’t think there is something wrong with you because you want to find new friends. As you grow up there is a multitude of reasons for finding yourself with a shrinking social circle – you may have moved to a new area or outgrown old friends because your life has taken a new direction.
3. Look for people you have something in common with – someone at work who seems to read the same books you enjoy, a fellow student who looks like they enjoy spending time at the gym, a mum at the park with children about the same age as yours.
5. Don’t expect too much too soon. People can find over-enthusiasm off-putting, it’s better to build a firm friendship slowly. Also, you may find you don’t actually get on that well with someone you have committed to spending a lot of time with, so take things slowly.
6. Take a real interest in your potential new friend – ask them how their holiday was, or how their sick mother is doing. You don’t want to ask a million questions, but people feel good knowing someone has taken an interest in their life and remember the details. This especially applies to names – make a real effort to remember the name of someone you think could be a friend.
7. Remember, other people fear rejection too, by overcoming your fear and making it easy for them to see you want to be their friend, it will makes others feel more comfortable about making the next move. Ask people about their plans for the upcoming weekend or about what they did last weekend, then suggest you “get together some time”.
8. Don’t forget to smile. Research shows people notice a smile before they notice any other facial feature, and that the recipient mirrors the smile back, creating a happy interaction.
9. Understand that the vast majority of people in the world are nice people who are happy to chat to someone new. The remainder is made up of people you probably don’t want to know anyway, so if they reject your friendly overtures, say a silent prayer of thanks and move on.
Want to know more?
In person: get one on one training in communication skills from the Parramatta Psychology Clinic (call 02 9687 9776 or make an online booking here)
written by Lynda Fallon