Been missing your mates during lockdown? There’s a good reason – evidence suggests friendships boost our health.
“Spending time with friends increases your sense of belonging, boosts happiness, reduces stress and improves self-confidence,” says clinical psychologist Dr Kate Mason.
“Plus, it can lower blood pressure, strengthen your immune system and even help you live longer.”
In fact, your mates could be as important to your lifespan as not smoking or being a healthy weight, as scientists found people with weaker social relationships were 50% more likely to die young.* We asked the experts how to tend yours.
Feed your friendships
All friendships need to be looked after. Take them for granted, and like that plant collecting dust on a shelf, they’ll wither away.
“It’s actually more important to nurture our friendships than it is our partners,” says Kate.
“In romantic relationships you’ve got a sexual connection, which is very strong, so even if you encounter problems, your bond will take time to dissolve. Plus, if you live with them, you see your partner every day, whereas you have to make an effort to see your friends.”
But how do we look after a friendship? “Deciding to nurture it is
the first step,” says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure.
“Then it’s about attention, support, loyalty and regular contact. With social distancing, this might mean more video chats or park picnics to show them you care.”
“Call or text your friends as often as you can. Ask them how they’re feeling. Tell them they matter to you,” says Kate Leaver.
Time to tend
When you think of someone who is lonely, you imagine a person with no friends, right? However, it’s just as likely someone with a never-ending list of WhatsApp groups pinging throughout the day feels alone.
“Most of us know enough people, but our friendships don’t always go deep enough,” says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimac.
“We might have busy social lives, but feel lonely because we don’t
feel connected to anyone.”
She explains that there are three ingredients to improving intimacy in
friendships: positivity, consistency and vulnerability.
“It’s important both people in the relationship have more positive than negative emotions about their time together. Studies have found that there’s a ‘magic ratio’ – for every negative interaction there needs to be five positive ones. If a friendship doesn’t feel good, you’re not going to want to hang out."
Next is consistency. “This is about building your friendship history,” explains Shasta.
A study by the University of Kansas shows you need to spend 200 hours
with someone to create a close friendship.
“When you’re a schoolkid you quickly build these hours. But if you see someone for lunch once a month, that might be just 12 hours a year.”
The final ingredient a friendship needs is vulnerability. “Being vulnerable helps us feel that connection when you really understand each other. It’s about sharing honest feelings and asking them to do the same.”
“Bring positivity to a friendship by saying: ‘I’ve loved seeing you.’ Be consistent by increasing calls from once a month to once a fortnight. Bring vulnerability by thinking about whether you’re the one who always listens – and instead share more,” says Shasta.
Friendships will hit good and bad patches, but just because you might be going through a tricky time, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to cut your mate off.
“In most cases, it’s not your friend who is toxic, it’s the pattern of friendship the two of you have developed,” says Shasta.
“If you’re having problems, look at the consistency, positivity and vulnerability in your friendship – one is likely to be broken. When you find out which, you can work on it.”
However, there are some red flags to watch for. “A toxic friend will typically be hot and cold with their attention,” explains Kate Leaver.
“And they might separate you from family and friends or make you believe that you need them more than other people.”
If you feel a friendship is bad for your health, take a break and pay attention to whether you feel better or worse as a result.
“Be as honest as you can and explain what you need to iron
out to keep your friendship alive,” says Kate Mason.
“Give it time for both parties to change. Be kind to your friend – but also to yourself.”
Plant new seeds
While you may still catch up with your uni mates several times a year, it’s likely you’ve lost touch with some friends along the way.
“Whether you’ve moved away or prioritised family, as you get older you tend to have fewer friends. We prune off the weaker ones, and we’re left with those who see us through divorces, illness or trauma,” Kate Mason says.
“These deep friendships help strengthen our resilience. But it’s important to make new friends, too.
“New friends keep the feel-good hormones going in the same way the early days of a relationship do,” she explains.
But it’s isn’t always easy. “At school you’re in a room full of people your own age who are experiencing the same thing, so you make friends easily.
"As an adult, you have to actively seek people out.”
So be brave.
“Maximise your chance of meeting people who have common interests and download apps such as Bumble, Peanut or Hey! Vina. Be open, kind and friendly. If you meet someone interesting, suggest a coffee.”
“Think about people you’ve already met but overlooked as a friend, such as an old colleague,” says Kate Mason.
“Suggest meeting up – you could disguise it as asking for help with a project.”
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