The Simple Trick to Living Longer

Your social network not only enahances your life—it can also extend it

Maintaining ties with close friends takes work, but it's worth it for your health.

Maintaining ties with close friends takes work, but it's worth it for your health.

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If there were something that could lower your stress, help you make better food choices and extend your life by a few years, wouldn’t you want it? Well, you’ve probably got it already.

If there is a magic elixir in life, it is friendship. Call them what you will—buddies, pals, BFFs—but those close confidants with whom we choose to share our lives can actually extend them. It’s true. A decade ago, a well-regarded Australian longitudinal study of senior citizens established that strong social bonds among friends were more likely to increase longevity than were close familial ties. The impact was profound. The seniors with the tightest social networks outlived the ones with the weakest by twenty-two percent.

But friends don’t just help us live longer. They also help us live better. Close friends can help reduce stress. They boost heart health and our immune systems. They can help us stick with exercise regimes (and even make them fun). Newer research also shows that healthy friends can positively influence our eating habits. She’s having a salad? I’ll take one, too.

It’s not exactly news that friends enrich our lives. That they factor positively and even heavily in our overall health and well-being is not really all that shocking, either. Friends make the hard times easier and the good times even better.

The challenge, of course, is sustaining over time the kind of strong friendships that actually bestow benefits. With work, kids and aging parents pulling us in different directions, it can be hard to work in time for anything or anyone else—even those things that we know are good for us and that we enjoy. Relocations can put great physical distances between friends, and shifting family dynamics such as divorce or a death can disrupt social spheres.

Maintaining friendships takes work, says UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain. “We have to cultivate the relationships,” she says. “We have to invest our time and look for opportunities to connect.”

If keeping up existing friendships is tricky, then making new ones can be downright daunting. While a priority in elementary schools, where regular lunchtime and recess afford the opportunity to chat and play with peers, forming friendships in adulthood can be more challenging. Not all work environments are conducive to interpersonal interaction. Nearly everyone heads straight home, not to the corner tavern after the clock strikes five. Chatting up the woman one mat over in yoga can feel awkward, especially in the silent confines of the Zen studios. The other moms on the soccer sidelines seem to have their social circles all buttoned up.

Mirgain acknowledges that it takes effort. She suggests exploring hobbies to find like-minded individuals or reconnecting with old friends with whom we’ve fallen out of touch. Forging strong relationships usually doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes a certain amount of openness and vulnerability to make it happen. Your co-worker might say no if you invite her out for coffee, but she can’t say yes until you ask.

Most of all, Mirgain believes that strong friendships are not simply a matter of luck or luxury, that we happened to cross paths with the right people at the right moments when we had time to spare.

“It’s a choice,” she says. “We don’t have to have friends. We choose to have friends.”

And it turns out that having friends is one of the smartest choices we can make.

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based writer who would like to thank her good friend Andrea LeWinter for reminding her that the best part of friendship is the giving, not the receiving. Read more health stories in Garrett's blog, Health Kick

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