Research, Experience Prove Importance of Friendships

I had the pleasure of attending the Ohio County Relay For Life, and, if a picture is worth a thousand words, this is the picture of the importance of friendships. It is touching, even emotional, to see survivors and their families and friends encouraging and supporting one another as they fight the battle against cancer.

The survivors may not know one another personally, but they have in common the will to survive, and they know how important it is to be there for one another, celebrating the victories and even honoring those who lost the fight. They know firsthand that a person’s state of mind can help or hinder the progression of a variety of health issues, including cancer.

Spending time with friends has been shown to yield long-term physical and emotional health benefits according to Madeline R. Vann, MPH, “The Importance of Friendships.”

Maintaining social relationships should rank up there with healthy eating and exercise as necessary to good health.

Healthy relationships make aging more enjoyable, lessen grief, and provide camaraderie to help you reach your goals. A number of studies have highlighted the importance of friends and good relationships to health. Strong social connections have been linked to such benefits as lowered risk of depression and early death, greater pain tolerance, a stronger immune system and reduced physical signs of stress, say health experts.

Here are some of the other findings, according to Ms. Vann:

— Socially engaged adults age find aging more enjoyable. According to surveys of women over age 60, those who are socially engaged and visit with friends and family throughout the week are happier as they age.

— Friends can help you achieve your weight and fitness goals. Association with individuals who value fitness and health results in your own better health. Encouragement and just sharing goes a long way to boosting your willpower.

— Happiness is catching. If you have a friend you consider to be happy, you are more likely to be happy. A study of 4,739 adults who participated in the Framingham Heart Study between 1983 and 2003 showed that people tend to cluster into happy or unhappy groups, and happiness appears to spread not just to those immediately inside the group, but to their other contacts as well.

— Building a circle of friends makes you happy. People who see themselves as a leader in their social circle are happier than those who see themselves as outsiders — another reason why it is important to take an active role in building relationships instead of waiting for someone else to make the first move.

— Friends lessen grief. A series of interviews with parents who lost a baby during pregnancy or immediately after birth showed that those who felt they were receiving social support from friends or family were better able to cope with their grief. The most welcome forms of support were simply being physically present, listening and offering sympathy, encouragement and practical help, such as making meals or funeral arrangements. Contrary to beliefs about saying “the right thing,” platitudes and advice were not helpful to the grieving parents.

The participants of Relay For Life have figured it out: They are not alone. They know that, as Audrey Hepburn said, “the best thing to hold onto in life is each other.”

Sandra Street is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Wheeling, with more than 30 years of experience in the mental health field.

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