The science behind healthy relationships and how it affects our
“I can never forgive him.”
Haven’t we all said this at some point in our lives? I have. I am not talking about being mugged or assaulted by a stranger—I’m referring to being wronged by a friend or relative—someone from our inner circle, someone we trust, someone we love. Next thing, we cut them from our lives—break contact, stop visiting, and withdraw.
And, if the wrong is big enough we withdraw from life itself and from our other friends, relatives, and circles. As we retreat to lick our wounds, we often bury ourselves in work to ease the pain or even stop working altogether, to help us forget, to find numbness; not realizing we gradually wither and welt away.
“It’s the only way to survive—do my own thing!” But we’re wrong. Going solo, going it alone, is not good for our health: not for our bodies, our brains or our souls. Being alone is not good when we’re young, middle-aged or elderly. We need other people and need to build and maintain strong relationships.
Want to be healthy? Eat nutritious food, hit the gym, and spent time with people!
In November 2015, Robert Waldinger gave a TED talk on “What makes a good life?” He is the director of the 75-year-old ongoing Harvard study on adult development. It is one of the longest and most comprehensive studies in history, and many lessons can be learned from what keeps us cheerful and healthy as we go through life. (The study began in 1939, following 724 men. Most of those still alive, are now in their 90s. In the last many years they also started studying the baby-boomer children and spouses of the original participants.)
The study has shown that it is not money, celebrity status (fame), or building an empire (working harder and harder and becoming super successful) that keeps us healthier and happier as we grow up and mature and age. It is by maintaining good, strong and healthy social connections with friends and relatives throughout life that we not only “survive,” but blossom. The study shows that loneliness kills.
Friendships and relationships are messy. We are human. We are fickle. We are imperfect. It is not easy to build or maintain healthy relationships—not as young children, nor as adults. If we understand the importance of friendships, we can also learn how to better nurture them as we go through life.
What happens when we lose or neglect our social support—our good and strong relationships?
- There is a higher incidence of depression. Loneliness erodes the fabric of our ability to ride out life’s storms and not buckle under daily demands and pressures.
- Decreased immune function. Studies have shown that being lonely when battling cancer negatively effect one’s health and outcome. We are 50% more likely to catch the common cold when exposed to the virus if lonely.
- Those who isolate themselves face the same risk for developing inflammation in the body as those who don’t exercise at all.
- It can increase blood pressure.
- We don’t live as long. Individuals with strong social relationships are 50% less likely to die prematurely. The centenarians who live in the Blue zones, all have strong and healthy relationships.
- Lose ability to deal effectively with the effects of stress. People with healthy and strong relationships, recovered faster from psychological trauma; even following surgery.
Why do friendships fall apart and end?
The reasons abound. We are wronged. We grow older and our interests change. We move away. Work pressure and commitments with family make us neglect our other relationships. It can be a normal process and phase of life. But, we need to replace them, and more important: be a friend.
“Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold.”
Where do we find friends?
Finding new friends take effort, and can be difficult. Remember, quality trumps quantity.
- Limit your “screen-time.” Online friends and having a strong online social network are all good and dandy, but you need face-to-face contact—you need someone whose hand you can shake or give a hug. Turn off your screen (Computer/device/TV). Yes. Do it now, and get out of the house or apartment.
- Pick up the phone (right now) and call that (long last spoken to) friend or relative and meet for coffee.
- Go meet your neighbors. Yes, you can become friends
- Offer your time and expertise at the local hospital, community center, library or a sporting event.
- Go for frequent walks. Go to the park. Speak to the people you meet. They may also be lonely. Just don’t become creepy.
- Take up a new interest: Join a yoga class. Join a walking group. Join a gym. Join a writer’s group. Join a book club.
- Join a faith community. Churches often have choirs.
- Surround yourself with positive and motivated people—it rubs off
The benefits of friendship:
- Increases your sense of wellbeing—of belonging and having a purpose
- Helps you cope—in difficult times: such as a serious illness, divorce, death in the family, or loss of a job—and even daily, surviving the seemingly insignificant small stresses of each day
- It prevents loneliness—the silent killer. It offers much-needed companionship and emotional bolstering.
- Reduces stress and improves happiness. It is especially effective against daily stress
- Hanging out with positive people, nurturing a good, strong relationship, increases your own likelihood of health. Health habits spread through our social networks. Non-obese people are more likely to have non-obese friends, and vice-versa.
- It empowers you, gives you “permission” to take up healthy habits, such as becoming fit, eating healthier, drinking less and quit smoking
- Having said this—avoid toxic relationships—avoid someone who bullies you or drags you down into pits of despair and hopelessness–it is detrimental to your health
Learn to be a friend. It can never be a one-way street.
Being a friend and maintaining friendships require hard work. It is necessary to invest time. It is based on give-and-take. Trust and respect always lie in the background. Don’t forget, a sibling can also be a friend.
- Be genuine. Be honest with yourself. You can’t buy real friends. Accept your own flaws.
- Accept your friends’ flaws and quirks
- Shake thing up. Boring is not a good place. Tackle new things together. Dare. Go on an adventure. Learn how to kayak together. Go on hiking trips. Have date nights (preferably with your significant other.)
- Be a good listener who is “present.” Show that you care and understand
- Be positive. It is not all about you and all your aches and pains and sorrows.
- Remain willing to grow and develop
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Friendship, like life, has its ups and its downs. Days of exhilaration and of sorrow, of gloom. Stay the course—don’t give up too easily.
Exercise regularly—stay fit, eat healthy (well, most of the time), and nurture your relationship with friends and relatives. Cultivate good and deep relationships. Do this from age five to 100. This will enable you live life to the fullest, have a blast and make an impact throughout life on your family, your community, and your world.
Don’t wait ‘till you’re old or retired. Be the friend you wish you had.
Don’t carry that grudge. It makes you sick and can even kill you.
Don’t keep on putting off to make that phone call with your friend, sibling, child or parent.
Go for coffee, a long walk or for a gym workout together. Make peace. Forgive. Find healing.
Go be a friend, (and in the process, find one), and live!
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Image: Seth Doyle – unsplash.com – friends talking on path with bicycle