These days we hear a good deal about Mindfulness, a new form of health awareness. We are not only to live on a high level of the wellness continuum or practice holistic health; now, we are to be mindful of all the detailed and comprehensive factors that contribute to our health. On that note, I’d like to raise a little awareness level myself of one of the most critical and oftentimes discounted features of good health: friendship. There is an abundance of psychological literature, one of my best friends assures me, who also happens to be a psychologist, supporting the healthful benefits of friendship. For years I used to remind her that we really don’t all need hours and hours with a psychologist when a good friend and a good cup of coffee will do the trick. I just happen to have all three: friend, psychologist and coffee in one fell swoop. (Of course, if a good psychologist is what one needs, by all means, seek one out!)
It’s more than just common sense that friends contribute to our sense of happiness and well-being, it really does have a medical basis. People who have a greater sense of belonging and cultivated friendships, are less likely to indulge in destructive health habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol in excess and eating too much. In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, members will remind each other to not get “too hungry, too angry, too lonely or too tired,” lest one fall prey to the vulnerabilities of temptation. A.A. program members likewise urge their members to call three people a day, not to dump negative feelings on them, mind you, but simply to inquire how that person is. That sense of concern for others, is fulfilling an innate need to care and be cared for. Studies show that single men are the most vulnerable to premature death, whereas happily married folks enjoy the greatest longevity.
According to the National Geographic’s publication called “The Blue Zones: The Science of Living Longer,” people who stay close to their “tribe” live the longest. Friendship as a factor in longevity is a strong feature in Japan where people choose to belong to moais, which are “groups of five friends who are committed to each other for life.” This same publication noted that people who attend some kind of faith community up to four times a month, live anywhere from four to fourteen years longer than those who do not. It seems we all have a fundamental need to belong, to be needed, to be heard, to love and to be loved. The quality of friendship also seems to be a contributing factor in longevity. Centenarians throughout the world tend to have invested time in family. People who have a life partner live on average three years longer than those who do not.
What is it about friendship that makes us healthier, happier people? I believe it is different from our other relationships as there is more benefit and less responsibility usually than with family or employers. We tend to glean our support from friends and be open with them oftentimes in a way we may not always be able to do at home. That in and of itself provides tremendous stress relief. Friendships also get us out of ourselves, and get us active and involved. When I was a little girl we would visit my German grandparents in the Bavarian spa of Bad Kissingen. Shopping with my grandmother “Omi,” was also an exercise in socialization. Omi and I would meander by foot through the quaint village to the little meat shop and discuss the day’s events with the butcher. Then, we would buy from the farmers’ wives at the village square and get our produce while inquiring about some family member’s health, or new baby. Omi would take me to the bakery, the tiny corner grocery store and the cigar store and, as the distant living granddaughter I would be spoiled with treats everywhere we’d go. My grandmother shopped until she was ninety and had these little tête-à-têtes and long walks, all of which kept her talking, interacting and mobile. Finally, she had to move to a retirement home where her needs were all provided for her. She lived to 93 years and had no long term debilitating health problems. I like to think that the conversations were the most important part of our shopping excursions (or maybe all the little treats!) because they kept Omi involved.
As for myself, I am more likely to enjoy a ski, a walk, a swim, a hike, a workout or a bike ride if I have a friend to share it with. There is something healing about discussing struggles and frustrations with a friend. I take the counsel of the A.A. program to heart and make sure I call three friends a day and not to dump on them, but to catch up and inquire as to their well-being. Why? As St. Francis of Assisi prayed, “…O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive…”
Maybe there is a selfish element to loving others for the benefits one accrues to one’s self. If so, let us all be so selfish, and live longer healthier and happier lives in the process.