For most people, friendship form an important part of life. Sharing experiences is part of being human. And many studies have shown that loneliness has a negative effect on our well-being.
We do not have to be social all the time — sometimes we need to enjoy our own space — but all people need social interactions.
That is why people make friends and work at maintaining those friendships. And quality friendships will benefit all those involved.
The Evolutionary Basis of Friendship
Man is a social species. Since the dawn of time, individuals have needed to rely on to survive, and we still do. We are not alone in this – most animals of social interaction and rely on cooperation.
Although animal friendships have been derided as anthropomorphic, research has now shown that some animals form long-term, stable relationships similar to human friendships.
Of course, not all animals have such friendships – as far as we know, they are limited to those that live in stable social groups, such as higher primates, elephants and cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins.
The basis of friendship is mutual valuing – each person offers something that is valuable to the other person.
As humans, we value others for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they like the same things we do, maybe they share the same political views, or maybe help with work or tasks.
Once we decide that we value someone, we will often work to maintain that friendship.
Speaking with Today Medical News, Dr. Scott Kaiser, MD, a neurologist and director of geriatric cognitive health at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, had this to say about the role of friendship in human evolution. :
“Research suggests that evolution has selected for increased social contact with continuous social contact and networks that play a critical role in people’s survival. According to this framework, our ancestors created social connections— Working together, sharing food, and otherwise helping each other — to feel safe and secure.Dr. Scott Kaiser
We Need Friends
As children, most of us find it easy to make friends, but adults may find it more difficult. The good news is that the benefits of childhood friendships stay with us well into adulthood.
In one study, boys were followed up for 32 years. Those who reported having lots of childhood friends had lower blood pressure and weighed more than those who were less sociable.
And it’s not just close friendships that are good for us. People of all ages benefit from any type of social interaction. A 2017 study of “SuperAgers” — people in their 80s whose memory skills are decades younger — found that they had more positive social relationships than expected cognitive abilities for their age. The level is very high.
Friendships and Mental Health
According to a 2014 study, “Loneliness is not about being alone, but about being without a particular desired relationship or set of relationships.”
Studies have shown that loneliness can lead to many psychological disorders, such as depression, personality disorders, alcoholism and sleep disorders, and can even contribute to physical health problems.
So does socializing help protect against mental health disorders? Almost certainly, as Lee Chambers, psychologist and founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, told TMN.
“Having friends has the potential to protect us from the effects of loneliness, and effective friendships can protect us from the negative effects of loneliness,” she noted.
But what is an effective friendship? According to a study, high friendships are characterized by cooperation, mutuality and closeness.
Effective friendships provide a strong sense of companionship, reduce feelings of loneliness, and contribute to both life satisfaction and self-esteem.
And there is a positive feedback loop between social relationships and self-esteem—each reinforces the other. Friendship therefore promotes self-esteem, which is a protective factor for both physical and mental health.
Why are Friendships Good for Us?
So all the evidence suggests that socializing benefits both our mental and physical health. but why? The key may be oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter, produced in the hypothalamus. It is involved in childbirth and breastfeeding, but it is also associated with compassion, generosity and trust, all important factors in friendship.
One study found that oxytocin is essential for social recognition in rats, and this effect was also observed in people. Another, where researchers administered oxytocin to people via nasal spray, found that it increased confidence and made them more willing to take social risks.
But why does oxytocin have physiological benefits? This may be due to its effect on cortisol – the stress hormone. In one study, participants who received oxytocin intravenously had lower cortisol levels than those who received a placebo when exposed to public speaking stress.
‘Connection matters, but it’s not about numbers’
When a person is stressed, the adrenal glands release cortisol. It’s good for emergencies because it prepares us for action, but bad when it’s long-term. Among other things, long-term high cortisol can cause high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and fatigue.