Nothing gets happy hormones like oxytocin and endorphins firing quite like seeing our friends. But in this age of social distancing, loneliness is a constant threat. Claire Warner, co founder of Æcorn – a range of non-alcoholic aperitifs, writes about how to strengthen friendships in a pandemic…
Friends help us to survive and thrive
Friends are lifesavers. Literally. I’m not talking about the time they helped you out of a sticky situation, or even into one. I’m talking about the fact that our friendships literally impact the quality and quantity of life we experience. We often think of relationships as something nice, not necessary, but if lockdown life has taught us anything, it’s just how difficult life can feel when we put distance between ourselves and our social worlds. We know we need food and drink to survive, but did you know that our relationships and meaningful connections are equally critical?
The dangers of loneliness
We are only recently beginning to really understand some of the reasons why our relationships are such powerful indicators of life expectancy. In recent years, research has uncovered just how lethal loneliness is and has started to explain why social isolation should come with a health warning. Some explanations point to the fact that socially isolated people tend to engage in behaviour that has a deleterious effect on their health, such as smoking, weight gain, and excessive alcohol use (Umberson, 2010). Or that the negative psychological impact of being isolated causes physiological changes that can increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and death. We now know that the quantity and quality of your friendships have a profound impact not only on your life experience but also on your lifespan.
The health risk of having few friends
A 2010 study of over 300,000 people* revealed those who had a network of close friends tended to outlive those with the fewest friends by 22%. Even better, a clinical review of nearly 150 studies found that those who had strong social ties had a 50% better chance of survival – regardless of age, sex, health status, and cause of death – than those who had weaker ties. Research has found that the health risk of having few friends was similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even more dangerous than being obese or not exercising in terms of decreasing your lifespan. See, our friendships mean being able to eat a bit more cake!
Social distancing shouldn’t stop us from maintaining healthy relationships.
So socialising saves lives, but our relationships require an upfront investment of time and effort (and a willing participant!) to reap the friendship benefits when we need them most. After all, friendship isn’t something the doctor can prescribe. Our relationships have likely taken a bit of a battering in recent months, and we’ve not been able to spend as much time (or perhaps any time) with our favourite people. As an intensely social species, it can bring some comfort to know that we’ve figured out some extraordinary ways to circumnavigate some of the evolutionary barriers to building large, healthy and resilient social structures over the last few thousand years. While challenging, a bit of social distancing shouldn’t stop us from maintaining healthy relationships.
One of the most potent ways to help protect our friendships is to engage with anything that releases endorphins. DOSE knows a thing or two about happy hormones – feel-good neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and endorphins. The latter, not only raise our pain thresholds, but they give us those crucial feelings of warmth and cosiness. And like oxytocin, help build trust and camaraderie that make friendships what they are. Spending time doing activities with those closest to us help form stronger attachments. It helps us bond. Time spent chatting, gossiping, laughing, singing, dancing, volunteering, or working out, all trigger various feel-good hormones and health-protecting benefits that cannot be wholly replaced by online interactions alone.
The magic number of friends is five
But what if you don’t have a large group of friends? How many friends do we need to reap these health benefits? As it turns out, not that many. This is the opinion of Professor Robin Dunbar, expert in the social behaviour of human and non-human species. While we’re likely to have an average of 150 associates or loose ties, the magic number for those we can connect deeply to is five.
“These five shoulders-to-cry-on friends are the ones that provide us with the emotional and other kinds of support we need to get us through the crises and catastrophes of everyday life,” says Dunbar.
It may have been a while since you’ve seen your friends, but as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you follow the following advice, your heart will be healthier, and it will hopefully beat for longer too.
How to strengthen friendships in a pandemic – 5 tips
i. Our friendships are now likely all long-distance. Send a letter or postcard to let your loved ones know you’re thinking of them.
ii. Get out into nature and go for a walk. According to the World Happiness Report 2020, time spent in nature with friends is doubly good for our physical and mental wellbeing.
iii. Share an online experience. Visit a gallery online together or watch a film with Teleparty/Netflix Party. While IRL experiences are the best ways to strengthen friendships, shared experiences such as these are better than nothing.
iv. Give yourself a break. In the same way you should put on your air mask before helping others, relationships are two-way; so remember to also take care of yourself during this time.
v. Gossip and laugh. Primates establish and maintain friendships partly through grooming. Human gossip helps us develop and maintain friendships with each other. Gossip doesn’t have to be negative, merely chatting about celebrity nonsense or swapping information about how other friends are getting on, are all ways to strengthen friendships and bonds with each other.
Claire Warner is co founder of Æcorn – a range of non-alcoholic aperitifs.
Liked this article on How to strengthen friendships in a pandemic? Read Why admitting to loneliness is a taboo issue.
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