Friends Nourish the Body and Soul

Cornell University polled 100 people in 2011 and found the average American had only two friends with whom they would confide important, personal matters. During times of high stress, friendships have a tendency to fade into the background, while work and family take center stage, battering themselves into the foreground of our lives.

Research shows this is a mistake and in fact, counterproductive to maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Here are some consequences of social isolation and a few tips on how to build and keep the right tribe to improve your health, happiness and even life expectancy.

3 Consequences of Social Isolation:

1) Negative Physical and Mental Effects

Research shows stress hormones spike while feelings of self-worth plummet in response to negative situations. Friends, however, have a protective effect on both of these physical and mental responses. Simply being with a best friend during a stressful event, such as an argument, bullying, or deliberate peer rejection, reduces the levels of stress hormones that would normally flood the body and stabilize feelings of self-worth, thus acting as a social buffer.

2) Reduces Longevity

The mortality risk for people who find themselves socially isolated is equal to that caused by obesity and physical inactivity. Having close relationships, in fact, increases your life span at a rate equal to that of quitting smoking. Dr. James House at the University of Michigan found the chance of dying over a period of 10 years increases by 10 percent for people who live alone or have only a few friends compared to people with more friends and family.

3) Increases Risk of Chronic Conditions

Dr. John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago and Dr. Steve Cole from UCLA, both prominent social psychologists, have researched the effects of loneliness on health. Their work shows that people who are socially isolated have less protection against contracting and fighting off infections. They also have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes than people with more social connections. This is partly due to an increased level of inflammation in the body, which causes lonely people to have higher blood pressure (up to 30 points), and heart rate.


3 Tips for Building a Social Safety Net

1) Engage in a Weekly Activity

Join a club or engage in an activity that captures your interest. There are many organizations that meet weekly. Sports enthusiasts can join a recreational sports club. Social dance groups (i.e. salsa, swing, ballroom, etc.) benefit physical and mental health, in addition to providing a platform for meeting new people. According to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, dancing is also the only physical activity shown to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, plummeting the chance of developing either disease by a striking 76 percent! This effect was greater than that of other mentally stimulating activities such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, and playing instruments.

2) Volunteer!

According to a Duke study, volunteering just two hours every week produces significant health benefits, including increased happiness and longevity, an added bonus. Pick a program that ties to your interests. Making friends with similar interests increases the chance of positive interactions, improves the emotional stability of the relationship and increases the likelihood of joint extracurricular activities.

3) Get Out With Your Dog

An increasing number of coffee shops and businesses are allowing people to bring their dogs on-site. Animals are great conversation starters and can help break the ice when meeting new people. If you have a social dog, visit the dog park or take your dog for a walk in a public place to encourage people to approach you. Alternatively, you can enroll in an obedience or agility class to meet other pet owners in a more structured environment (and improve your relationship with your dog).

Fostering close friendships is crucial to increasing longevity and maintaining your health. By creating a social “safety net,” you can protect yourself from depression, anxiety and physical ailments to promote a long, healthy life.


Starter resources:

Lists sports/activity ideas (for children-adults). If an activity strikes your interest, do an internet search to find local organizations to join.

Links to many social dance chapters across the U.S.

A guide to dog parks throughout the U.S.

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