In studying women’s health issues and meeting women in my work, it’s clear that loneliness is not only not fun, but it’s actually unhealthy. Researchers have recently asked if people who are alone are at greater risk of dying, and studies are showing that they are—if they feel lonely.
What should you look for in a good friend whose companionship will bring health and happiness to you instead of just raising your blood pressure? There are a few things you should ask yourself before befriending someone. First of all, make sure to choose a friend who has positive things to say to you. Every once in a while, a good friend may need to tell you something that might be tough to hear—“hard truths”—but these remarks should be very infrequent and you should generally walk away after spending time with them feeling better about yourself.
An author, researcher, and humanitarian, not only have I come across the benefits of friendship in my work, but I’ve experienced them personally. It’s important to be aware of other research which suggests that one should be careful to select positive friends, as the stress that comes from bad friends can negate the health benefits of having their friendship.
Other research suggests the health benefits of social support. One study, published in the journal Cancer, followed 61 women with advanced ovarian cancer. The women with lots of social support had much lower levels of a protein linked to more aggressive types of cancer, and higher levels of a protein that boosted the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
In 1989, David Spiegel, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, published an influential paper in Lancet, showing that women with breast cancer who participated in a support group lived twice as long as those who didn’t and reported much less pain. Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has shown that strong social support helps people cope with stress. Other studies have demonstrated that less connected people tend to die sooner after having a heart attack than people with a strong social network and that having a large social network may even reduce chances of catching a cold, even though you’re probably exposed to more viruses when spending lots of time with others.
Statistics are showing that Americans have fewer friends than they used to, according to a recent study, “Social Isolation in America,” which was published in the American Sociological Review. The authors found that the number of Americans who feel they have someone with whom they can discuss important matters dropped by nearly one-third from 1985 to 2004, and the number of people who said they had no one they could discuss such matters with tripled to nearly 25 percent of Americans. The authors suggest the cause for this decrease in intimate friendships may be longer work hours and the increased popularity of the Internet and television.