One of the more surprising findings in the science of relationships is that both romance and friendship often start the same way — with a spark.
“We’ve always had this hierarchy of love with romantic love at the top and friendship seen as second class,” said Marisa G. Franco, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends.” “We are constantly fed the message that the romantic relationship is the only one that matters.”
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But platonic love trumps romantic love in a number of ways. People with strong friendships tend to have better mental health and studies suggest they’re in better physical health, as well. Researchers have found large social networks lower our risk of premature death more than exercise or dieting alone.
A six-year study of 736 middle-aged Swedish men found having a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease — but having friends did. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a lot of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with few friends. Notably, having a social network of children and relatives did not affect survival rates.
“We need an entire community to feel whole,” Franco said. “Being around different people brings out different sides of our own identity.”
Why friends are good for our health
There are multiple theories about the association between friendship and better health. Part of the effect may be due to the fact that it’s easier for healthy people to make friends. A strong social network could be an indicator that someone has more access to medical care. And, someone with more friends may just have a better support system to get a ride to the doctor’s office.
But there is also a psychological effect of friendship that likely plays a role. Friends help us cope with stress. In one study at the University of Virginia, many people were intimidated at the prospect of climbing a steep hill. But researchers found that when people were standing next to a friend, they rated the hill less challenging than those who were alone.
Brain imaging studies suggest that friendship affects brain systems associated with reward, stress and negative emotions, offering an explanation for why social connection benefits mental health and well-being.
Friendship even seems to affect our immune response. In one remarkable study, 276 healthy volunteers were given nose drops containing a cold virus. Those with diverse social ties were less likely to develop cold symptoms.
Franco notes that the term “platonic love” was originally intended to reflect Plato’s vision of a love “so powerful it transcended the physical.”
How to make new friends and keep the old
Friends don’t just appear out of thin air, Franco said. Here’s her advice for making new connections and maintaining the old ones.
Take the initiative. Trust your gut when you’re meeting new people. We’re particularly good at knowing when someone is a potential new friend (remember that spark). And, you should assume people like you. We often underestimate how positively others think of us, Franco said.
“People like you more than you think,” Franco said. “I know it’s scary to reach out but it’s likely to end more positively than your brain is assuming.”
Start with a text. Start small by scrolling through your phone and shooting a text message to an old friend you’ve been meaning to reconnect with.
Show your gratitude. If a potential friend reaches out to you to grab coffee or pizza, tell them how happy you are they reached out, and that you appreciate the effort, Franco said.
In a University of Utah study, researchers asked 70 college freshman to keep a check list of certain interactions — like going to see a movie together or calling just to say hello — they did with new friends. After three months, the researchers found that close friendships were more likely to form when the pairs expressed affection to each other.
“When we don’t express affection, we are at risk of losing the friendship itself,” Franco said.
Invite friends to things you’ve already planned. If it’s hard to find time for friends, think of the tasks you already have to accomplish and tag on a friend, Franco said. The next time you workout at the gym, for example, you could invite someone to join.
“Ask yourself: Are there parts of your day right now that you’re doing anyway that you can just do in community with other people?” Franco said.
Join a book club, take a class or play a sport. Regular interaction with people who share the same interests as you could lead to friendship. Another University of Maryland study that found cadets who sat next to each other in police academy were more likely to become close friends. It’s what researchers call “propinquity,” being in proximity to others. It’s proof, said Franco, “that friendship isn’t magical.”
Addressing a loneliness epidemic
Americans have fewer friends than they used to and are spending more of our time alone. Roughly half of Americans say they’ve lost touch with at least one friend during the pandemic, according to a 2021 poll by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In 2021, 12 percent of Americans surveyed by AEI said they had no close friends.
While having friends is good for your health, not having them can be detrimental. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness has been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. For older women, loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of heart disease by as much as 27 percent.
Loneliness is essentially the perceived gap between the relationships you have and the relationships you want in your life, said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, the author of “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.”
A 2018 study found that loneliness is common across age groups. Loneliness can spike across the life span — first in the late 20s, then in the mid-50s and finally in the late 80s.
Social media can exacerbate our perception of loneliness by bombarding us with photos and videos of friends and acquaintances seemingly spending their time without us, said Poswolsky.
“It’s something we don’t talk about but everyone is struggling with it,” said Poswolsky. “No one feels like they can talk about it because there’s a lot of shame associated with loneliness.”
Billy Baker, the author of “We Need to Hang Out,” a memoir of his personal journey to find new friends as a middle-aged man, said he realized he needed to build beyond the lifelong friendships he made in high school or college.
Baker said he didn’t have very many people he could call in the middle of the night if there was an emergency. To remedy this, he started a fraternity for neighborhood dads to meet every Wednesday night, and the group now gets together on other days and on the weekends.
Baker said he’s spent years “checking off so many other boxes,” to be a good father and husband, but he’s never had “hanging out with my buddies” on the list.
“We all know how to do this,” he said. “What very often happens in those moments is you feel that spark with someone and you say: ‘Hey, we should grab a beer some time!’ But, how often do you go grab that beer?”
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