Relationship Tips

The Importance of Friendship and Community for Bettering Your Mental Health

Photo: Getty Images/Tom Werner
Whether you've gone through a break up, a career change, a move, or a family trauma, more often than not, your friends are the people you turn towards to help get you through it. Your friends are your chosen family and in many ways are just as vital as blood relationships, especially when it comes to your mental health.

Scientifically, having friendship and a sense of community in your life is integral to both your physical and your mental well-being. 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. It's even been linked to cardiac deathhigh blood pressure, and more. But besides battling loneliness, the sense of companionship that comes with fostering deep and true relationships can also help “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.

"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

The mental health benefits of friendship

1. Provides support

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 significant other), researchers are finding that friendship is imperative is to mental health. “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. Symbiotic, deep friendships provide pillars of emotional support when you need stability through any kind of challenge or change.

2. Establishes a sense of security and social belonging

“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.”

3. They're a two-way street

Because true friendships go both ways, they serve dual benefits. They help you learn how to accept and ask for help while also teaching you how to nurture and be there for others in constructive and caring ways.

4. Helps with personal growth

Having a good circle of friends can also help with personal growth and brain health. Because the people that we trust and hold close to us influence our lives and our choices, having a support system can help you stay accountable to your goals, pick up new skills that you wouldn't have once thought of, adopt healthy behaviors, and expand out of your comfort zone. Also, the opportunity to have stimulating and deep conversations can also help boost your cognitive health and resilience against brain fog and dementia in the long run.

5. Limits anxiety and depression

A 2015 study, From the Outside Looking In: Sense of Belonging, Depression, and Suicide Risk, found that a "lower sense of belonging was significantly associated with greater severity of depression, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and history of prior suicide attempt(s)." As such, having a community of friends is paramount in battling depression, anxiety, and other chemical mental imbalances. Additionally, because physical touch is so linked to reduced stress levels and reduced cortisol levels, having someone around to give you a hug always helps.

6. Boosts self esteem

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. Because a good friend can call you out when necessary, but also be your biggest cheerleader, strong friendships give you people who will be just as excited for your successes as you are. They will boost you up when you are feeling down, and during times of low self esteem, belonging to a social community can also help prove your worth to yourself by giving you a sense of social identity and promoting personal self esteem through collective self esteem.

7. Brings a sense of community

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,” says Dr. Fehr. "A large body of work shows that people with more social group memberships have better psychological well-being, are healthier and live longer than those who belong to fewer social groups," according to a 2015 study by PLOS ONE.

How to make new friends

“[Making friends] 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.”

1. Join an enthusiasts club for one of your favorite hobbies

"Similarity really builds connection. The more similar we are to people, the more we feel understood, the more we feel 'gotten'. So similarity tends to be a significant glue," Marisa G. Franco, PhD, a psychologist and friendship expert, previously told Well+Good. Love hiking? Try finding an outdoors club in your area. A coffee-aficionado? Find a coffee-lovers club and explore the new cafes in your area. Meetup is a site that has great opportunities all over the country, no matter what your favorite hobbies are.

2. Volunteer in your community

"Voluntarism is good for the health of people who receive social support, but also good for the health of people who offer their help," Ichiro Kawachi, PhD, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, previously told Well+Good readers. "Community social connections are as important for resilience to disaster as physical material like disaster kits or medical supplies," he continued. That said, disaster or not, volunteering is a great way to meet new people and integrate yourself into your community.

3. Take a class at a local college or center

Whether it be online or in person, taking a a class is a great way to meet likeminded individuals. From pottery to writing, small-business management, and so many more, looking into what your local universities and community colleges offer is a great place to start. Otherwise, check out this list of online options!

4. Join a digital/virtual community

Looking to connect with people outside of your immediate vicinity? The internet is the perfect place to do it. Dr. Franco recommends finding a digital community that's continuous to really build connection with the members. "The reason is because there's this effect called the mere exposure effect, which is basically that the more we are exposed to people, the more we like them," she previously explained.

5. Meet your neighbors

Everyone knows the old—bring over a cup of sugar—cliche, but it is a cliche for a reason. Knowing your neighbors is like having built in friends and they're literally next door. Strike up a conversation in the hallway or invite them over to share a meal to bridge that connection.

6. Start a book club

Remember book clubs from school? Why not bring them back. Books are a great way to bring friends, strangers, and acquaintances alike together with a conversation topic decided from the start so there are no awkward pauses to be weary of. Pick a genre, a theme, a bestseller, or a classic and get started.

7. Join a local sports team

Like with enthusiasts clubs, most neighborhoods and communities have recreational sports teams that will let you live out your pro-ball fantasies. Sports are a great way to meet new people who already have a passion for something you love and they'll get you out and moving about too!

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. This isn't to say that it's aways easy, and not every new acquaintance that you make has to be in your life forever, but knowing the importance of friendship for both your physical and your mental health means that there is great value to being part of a community and having (and being) a strong and reliable support system. So go ahead and make that intro. Join that club or team. Bring over that cup of sugar.

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