Schedule your next girls’ night, because friendship and community are indicators of mental health


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Photo: Getty Images/Peter Muller

When 25-year-old Meghen Carpinelli moved back home to her parents’ place in Bridgewater, New Jersey, after leaving a toxic relationship, she felt heartbroken, confused, and lonely. Her high school friends had all since moved away, and she didn’t have anyone on call for even a casual hangout. “I knew that leaving the relationship was a positive thing for my life, but I didn’t realize it came with the negative of losing my inner circle, since I moved away from my group of girlfriends,” she recalls. “It was such a hard time in my life.”

Meghen isn’t alone. Whether millennial women are acclimating to a new city after accepting a far-away job offer, or moving across the country—or even the whole globe!—to be with a significant other, or starting over somewhere fresh for some other reason, I hear from a different person every day who is struggling in the friend department. As the CEO and founder of Hey! VINA—the social-discovery app for women that aims to help members establish IRL friendships and offline connections—I know that Meghen is just one example of millions who just want a friend.

In May 2018, a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults from health-insurance provider Cigna found that “most American adults are considered lonely.” A separate study, The Loneliness Experiment, from BBC Radio 4 and Wellcome Collection revealed that 40 percent of those between the ages of 16 to 24 say they feel lonely often or very often. And former United States Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, has called it a health epidemic. “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity,” he writes in Harvard Business Review.

“To know there are people who care about you and who will carry you if you’re unable to take care of yourself gives a huge sense of security. A community provides a sense of identity and purpose, too.” —Carlin Flora, friendship expert

It’s no surprise, then, that loneliness has reportedly been linked to health-risk factors such as cardiac deathhigh blood pressure, and more. The reality is, having a community and strong friendships that you can rely on when times get tough is crucial to mental and physical health. “Good friendships can benefit our mental health in so many ways: Friends reduce stress, make us laugh, help us feel known and understood, motivate us to take care of ourselves and reach higher, and fulfill the basic need of belonging,” says Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are.

As American millennials are likely to live without a romantic partner (2017 Pew research found that roughly 60 percent of adults younger than 35 don’t live with a spouse or S.O.), researchers are finding that friendship is imperative is to mental health. (It makes sense: The lack of a committed life partner can point to a lack of support in life.) “In fact, one recent study found that having close friends was a stronger predictor of health than having close family members,” says psychologist Beverley Fehr, PhD, whose research specialty is close relationships.

To put it lightly, friendships have a powerful effect: There’s a reason, after all, why after you and your besties gas each other up via text, you tend to feel better mentally. “A sense of social belonging is as important as water, food, and shelter,” Flora says. “To know there are people who care about you and who will carry you if you’re unable to take care of yourself gives a huge sense of security. A community provides a sense of identity and purpose, too.”

So, as women up and move for whatever reason unique to their own path and story, they often lose connection with the communities that previously fostered a sense of comfort and belonging, leaving a huge void. “It then becomes important to create your own community,” Dr. Fehr says. While finding your people does take time, there are tools to make it easier—apps like Hey! VINA, for instance, are available.

“It takes time and effort,” Flora says. “You could start by easing into a community around your interests, such as meeting the people in your area who are interested in yoga or running. A local political campaign or committee, or even a café where there are ‘regulars’ are also places where you can sow the seeds of community.”

The most important thing you can do is take the first step into finding new friendships around you. It only takes one “hey” or asking someone to coffee, but could leave a lasting positive impact on your life. So go ahead and make that intro.

Olivia June is the founder and CEO of Hey! VINA, the social discovery app for women to meet new friends. Olivia has been working to empower women through nonprofit leadership and her business for 10 years, and she’s been studying social psychology and the role of social technology on our lives for 16 years. She wants to help everyone live their best lives, and most importantly, have a lot of fun getting there. Follow her at @heyoliviajune.

If you’re deciding whether or not to bail on a friendship, take these 6 steps first. And, FYI, emotionally intelligent friends tend to share this handful of traits.

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