The power of mates

Your best friend may provide more support than you realise.

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writer

Staff writer

Most of us know how important and nurturing close friendships can be in our lives. But as our days fill up with to-do lists, weeks begin to skip by and soon it can be months before we’ve caught up with our friends – even those we consider to be close friends.

Speaking to Kate James, who runs the career, business and life coaching company Total Balance, she says this happens to most people. Younger people tend to prioritise friendships, but – due to the inevitable passage of time – ‘[Friends are] often one of the first things that get let go when career and family tend to be priorities.’

‘Friends can get bumped down the list a little bit when life gets busy,’ she says.

‘The demands of work and the demands of family are things that you can’t really put aside.’

There’s also the issue of increased work commitments that eat into our free time. ‘I am seeing people who are working longer hours than ever before, there’s no question about it,’ Kate says.

But maintaining friendships isn’t just about keeping your social life afloat, they can have a serious impact on our physical health and mental wellbeing too.

Make your #onechange

Text a friend with a plan to catch up.

You've got a friend in me: friends, stress and support

Life feels more manageable when we’ve got the support of friends. We recover quicker from ill health and challenges seem more surmountable – and there’s science to back up this up. In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from the US reported suggested that social support can influence visual perception. In the experiment, students were asked to estimate the slant of a hill. Of the participants, those accompanied by a friend ‘estimated a hill to be less steep when compared to participants who were alone’. Even people who thought about a supportive friend during the task estimated the hill to be less steep, than a person who thought of a neutral or disliked person.

On a chemical level, friends may also reduce stress by limiting the release of cortisol in the body. In a Concordia University study, the cortisol levels of grade 5 and 6 students were measured over four days. Results showed that when the children were faced with a negative event, their cortisol levels increased. But when facing the negative event with a friend by their side, there was no increase, suggesting friendship may be crucial during tougher times.

In fact, keeping friends around during a health crisis can also benefit your recovery. A 2010 Brigham Young University study reported that social connections – friends, family, neighbours or colleagues – improve a person’s odds of survival by 50 per cent.

With a little help from my friends: happiness and a healthy lifestyle are contagious

The concept of happiness is difficult to categorise – it means different things to different people and takes many forms: joy, pleasure, gratitude, a way of being. But one thing we know for sure is that it is contagious.

Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard Medical School professor of medical sociology and medicine, has dedicated much of his research to social networks and the ‘contagion of emotions’. His research has found that living near a happy friend increases the likelihood of your own happiness. Christakis says, just like some diseases, ‘Many emotions can pulse through social networks’.

Living a healthier lifestyle is also catching. Studies show that people who eat well and exercise influence their friends to do the same. James Fowler, a University of California researcher, first looked into the spread of obesity among friends. Further research showed it went both ways – losing weight led to weight loss among friends, too. Fowler says: ‘Consciously or unconsciously, people look to others when they are deciding how much to eat, how much to exercise and how much weight is too much.’

Started from the bottom now we're here: work friends are good for your career

It might sound counter-intuitive but socialising at work makes you better at your job. Analysis by Gallup, a performance management consulting company, surveyed over 15 million employees around the world about ’best friends’ at work. They found those who do have a best friend are, ‘Seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher-quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job.’

Gallup has also found those with a ‘best friend’ at work are also 43 per cent more likely to report having received praise or recognition in the past week. Almost a third are also more likely to feel their opinions are heard at work. It makes sense that a combination of these factors not only contributes to a person’s mental wellbeing, but also makes their career more fulfilling day-to-day. Gallup posits that for each additional friend in any part of your life, you get on average a 9 per cent boost in your self-reported daily wellbeing.

Friend catch-ups as an introvert or extrovert

So catching up with friends is good for you, but what kind socialising should you be doing? Kate James says we need to consider our own personality profiles as individuals before we dive into commitments.

For extroverts, Kate says, it’s important to spend time with others. Spending time socialising is what fuels and feeds an extroverted personality.

For introverts, on the other hand: ‘[They need] time on their own and quite often you find that with an introvert, the extra pressure to be social becomes a negative, it’s something else to feel guilty about.’

We may not fall neatly into either of these categories, so Kate suggests asking yourself: What do you need more of?

‘Check in,’ she says. ‘Don’t just make the assumption that more socialising is the answer. It’s more a matter of understanding yourself.’

It’s useful to think about who you’re hanging out with. Are they important in your life and do they make it easy for you? Kate says friendship shouldn’t feel like an obligation.

‘I’ve had clients who have said that they had to move away from some of the more demanding friendships, and prioritise friendships where people understand that there are other priorities and don’t take it personally,’ Kate says.

Tom Rath, one of the authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, says data shows, ‘A person needs to spend six hours a day socialising to have a good day.’ This includes ‘time at work, on the phone, instant messaging, e-mailing, and time with family at home.’

But don’t let the numbers overwhelm you. Kate James says it’s ‘balancing act’ and ‘it’s important not to put yourself under huge amounts of pressure,’ and turn it into a burden. The real key she says is to plan ahead and be proactive.

‘It’s good to be the person who initiates an event, because everyone’s busy,’ she says.

‘So don’t make the assumption that because you haven’t heard from your friends they’re not keen to catch up. It’s often just that people aren’t getting to it – even though it’s a priority for them too.

‘Pick a date, schedule something in and send out the invite.’

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writers come from a range of backgrounds including health, wellbeing, music, tech, culture and the arts. They spend their time researching the latest data and trends in the health market to deliver up-to-date information, helping everyday Australians live healthier lives. This is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.