“Make friends” isn’t just something we tell our kids to do on the first day of school — positive friendships are important for adults, too. “When you cross paths with something that you find a connection with, make it a point to get to know them,” says Janice McCabe, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and author of Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success. “People are typically flattered when you invite them to lunch or to coffee. If they turn you down, you don’t lose much, but if it develops into a friendship, you could gain greatly.”
If you’re still skeptical, here are seven reasons why friendship is vital to our well-being.
Friends lower stress.
When women feel close to someone, levels of progesterone, a hormone that helps reduce stress and anxiety, go up, a study from the University of Michigan found. “The surge was also linked to a willingness to risk one’s life for the other person, so we believe it may have played a role in establishing social bonds over the course of evolution,” says Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine and lead author of the study. Plus, when stress levels go down, so does your risk for health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and depression.
Friends keep you razor-sharp.
Researchers from Northwestern University studied people over age 80 who had the memory function of middle-aged adults and found that these “super agers” had more positive social relationships. “There is a body of prior research that suggests social integration, engagement with family, and emotional support from a social network are positively associated with cognitive function in older adults,” says Amanda Cook Maher, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University and lead author of the study. “Our findings add to this prior work by suggesting that perceived high-quality social relationships may be an important factor in above-average cognitive performance.”
Friends can help you live longer.
When researchers asked more than 90,000 women between 50 and 79 how much social support they had, those who said they had more support were more likely to still be living in a follow-up years later. “The difference was slight, but the data is pretty reliable because it was out of such a large group, so it’s less likely to be a coincidence,” says Nancy Freeborne, Dr.PH., adjunct professor of health administration and policy at George Mason University and lead author of the study. Other studies have shown that women with breast cancer who have strong social and emotional networks have better odds of survival.
Friends can boost your career.
Women who frequently check in with two or three women in their friendship circle or have female-dominated inner circles are more likely to land higher-ranking leadership positions, according to a study by the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University. “There continues to be bias in the workplace that makes it difficult for women to have equity in pay and promotion opportunities,” says Jenna Glover, Ph.D., licensed psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Having strong friendships can help provide networking and mentoring opportunities for career development and advancement.”
On top of that, Glover notes that women who have careers are often asked to juggle more demands outside of work than their male counterparts — such as child-rearing responsibilities — and having friends who can help validate these extra demands and support all aspects of your life can be invaluable.
Friends can motivate you to be healthier.
If you’re looking to start a new workout routine or a healthier diet, take a look at your social circle. You may have more success if your friends employ the healthy habits you’re hoping to adopt. “When we have close friends who exercise, save money, or volunteer, we are more likely to also engage in those same behaviors,” says Glover. “Conversely, when we have friends who smoke, spend impulsively, or have chaotic relationship patterns, we are more likely to mimic those same behaviors in our own life.”
Friends teach you about yourself.
Now might be a good time to think about friendships that are especially meaningful to you. “My research shows that as we’re talking about and thinking about our friends, we’re also reflecting who we are and who we want to be,” says McCabe. “People strive to present themselves as positive and competent people and I’ve found that as people talk about their friends, they are often talking about their current self or the self they’d like to become.”
Along those same lines, if you realize that a particular relationship doesn’t reflect your values, it’s okay to say goodbye. “We are often afraid to let go of friendships — maybe for the nostalgia of the past, the thought that they may be useful in the future, or how it looks to others when we have fewer friends,” says McCabe, “but I find there are times when it is not just okay but helpful for our success and self-identity to let a friendship fade away or break away.”
Friends just help you feel better.
“A lack of friendships and social support increases the risk of developing an anxiety or depressive disorder,” says Glover, “and one of the key treatment components for depression is helping individuals expand their social network and increase the amount of time they are spending with friends.” In fact, good friendships predict health and happiness as we age better than do our relationships with relatives, two studies from Michigan State University show. It may be because we get to weed out meh friends over time, whereas family — including the difficult members — is forever.