By. Meg Luckens Noonan
Families are great; you still need friends.
According to a Birgham Young University analysis of nearly 150 studies that examined social relationships and their effects on health, people with close friends live longer than those who are loners- and longer than those who rely only on a spouse or other family member for support.
Friendship appears to be crucial to recovering from illness, as well. For example, in a Harvard study a women with breast cancer, patients without a strong social network were found to have a 66 percent increased risk of death than those with a network of supportive pals.
What is it about friendship that is healing?
Scientists aren't certain, but there is evidence that feeling close to a friend increase levels of progesterone, a hormone that helps reduce stress, a known contributor to heart disease and a suppressor of the immune system.
What's more, in 2009, University of Michigan researchers discovered that in a group of female subjects, progesterone triggered a bonding response that led them to seek out friends in times of difficulty-as opposed to the classic "fight or flight" response to stress. Experts also think that a strong social network encourages people to take better care of themselves and to seek medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems. Close friends also lift each other's moods, convey a sense of belonging and help build self-esteem.
So just how close is "close"?
"The definition varies from person to person", says Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at the NYU school of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. "In general, with a close friend, there's a sense of loyalty and trust that permits you to be yourself. You don't have to put on airs or pretend to be someone you're not."
Even as online "friending" has exploded, true meaningful friendships appear to be more difficult than ever to cultivate and maintain. A 2006 Duke University study found that Americans have one-third as many close friends as they did 20 years ago. Still, when it comes to providing health benefits, the number of friends you have doesn't seem as crucial as the quality of the friendship. "What's important is to have enough-for-you close friends upon whom you can depend for understanding and support," says Levine says. And, since half of our close friendships turn over every seven years, you have to keep working at making new friends.
Making New Friends in 3 Steps
"Long-term friendships are wonderful and valuable," says Tina B. Tessina, a Southern California psychotherapist and author. "But if you don't make a new connections as you get older, your group of friends may diminish due to death and relocation." Tessina has some tips for cultivating a new friends.
1. Consider what being a friend means to you. Who are your best friends? What qualities do they have? Once you have a clear idea of the kinds of friendships you enjoy, you can decide to create more of them in your life.
2. Get involved with a group that meets regularly. It can be taking classes, joining a club, volunteering or playing a sport. The people you meet will share your interest, and you'll have something to talk about and enjoy together.
3. When you find someone you think is pleasant, spend a little time talking with him or her during or after your activity. Ask questions about the project you are working on, or share your experiences. If you both enjoy the conversation, offer to meet before or after the session for coffee. From there, you can begin to do more things together, until you've established a pattern of friendship.