Friendship Enhances Health and Happiness

Friendship Friendship: The Gist The Benefits of Friendship Friendship Myths Types of Friends Connection Reflection Looking Inward Nurture Exiting Friendships New Friendships Social Skills Understanding Community Building Community Friendship Practice and Exercises Friendship Resources

You likely have a group of friends, you occasionally hang out with people, or you have a spouse who doubles as your best friend. You feel lonely at times, but so does everybody, right? Why study friendship? Why make an effort to strengthen existing ties? Why do we have friends in the first place??

Friendship enhances our physical health, mental health, happiness, well-being, and purpose in life.

Friendship is an effective strategy in filling our needs for intimacy, belonging, support, play, and more!

Loneliness, on the other hand, is a common human experience that has been proven to be detrimental to physical and mental health and can turn into a never-ending spiral. Humans naturally evolved to be friendly because the underlying benefits of friendship aided in survival.

Did you know…

  • Being social can help you live a longer life.
  • You are more likely to break bad habits or start new habits if done with friends.
  • The #1 ingredient for overall well-being is having positive relationships.
  • When around friends, our brain produces less cortisol (stress hormones).
  • Chronic loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

Read on for more!

Throughout History, Humans Have Always Had Friends.

Let’s go waaaay back to caveman times for a brief history of friendship.
While the idea of survival of the fittest has been the main evolutionary hypothesis since Darwin, scientists have also presented the idea of survival of the friendliest.¹ ² Having friends meant protection, sharing resources, and the ability to climb up the social/political ladder. Friendly traits in the study of animals can still be seen today.

In the animal kingdom, studies have been done looking at non-familial relationships in several different species. In one such study, Seyfarth and Cheney state “Male allies have superior competitive ability and improved reproductive success; females with the strongest, most enduring friendships experience less stress, higher infant survival, and live longer.” 3

Chimp Politics – BBC
As a show of political prowess, Kindia (a male chimp) attempts to challenge the leadership of current top male, Qafzeh, at Edinburgh Zoo. But will Kindia’s display ritual be sufficient to usurp Qafzeh? Great clip from the show ‘Chimp TV.’

Survival of the Friendliest | Vanessa Woods | TEDxNCSSM

Science writer and researcher Vanessa Woods shares her research comparing the cognition of bonobos and chimpanzees, and learning what bonobos can tell us about becoming a more peaceful species.

Key Takeaways:

  • Domestication of certain animals likely happened because those animals were more “friendly” than others. People welcome animals that can be around people and kill aggressive animals, so aggression was naturally bred out of some domesticated species.
  • Experiments breeding Silver Foxes showed friendly foxes tended to have a higher social intelligence.
  • Studies of Bonobo monkeys showed monkeys love making friends and sharing with strangers.
  • Other traits naturally occur when animals are bred for friendly-ness, such as smaller heads, smaller teeth, floppy ears, splotchy coats.
  • Woods theorizes similar changes happened to neanderthals when humans started living in tribes/social groups, which led to physical changes in humans and higher social intelligence.

Ancient tribes provided benefits of protection and pooling resources, and the communal aspect helped ancient civilizations survive.

If a caveman ever found him/herself alone in the middle of nowhere, alarm bells would sound and survival instincts would kick in. Being alone often meant being dead. Our brains are genetically programmed to crave social interaction. When we are alone, something in our brain tells us we need to seek out people, just like our brain tells us when we are thirsty.

When the industrial revolution swept in, we didn’t need friends as much for survival, and the need for friends shifted from a physical need to a social/emotional need.  While our monkey brain still pulls us toward forming connections, those relationships are more nuanced than a mutual dependency for survival, and our communities look drastically different. The community page delves more into the shift in community: once humans were able to venture out of the community they were born into, a new mindset of going out to find community came about. The concept of community became more broad: now spanning from tribes and villages to online meetups, interest and skill-based groups, and international identity movements.

Liber Amicorum

Liber amicorum (which translates to “Book of Friends”) were books popular in Germany and throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout their travels, a person would have dignitaries such as knights, dukes, princes, and even emperors and kings sign their book. As the collection of noble autographs grew, so did the person’s network and clout. With a book full of “friends”, a person had more credibility, similar to LinkedIn or Facebook today. Now, the liber amicorum artifacts that remain from the 16th and 17th centuries give us insight into relationships that existed back then. Recently, a German library bought one of these books for over $3 million.16 This begs the question, if in 400 years if a digital remnant of someone’s Facebook profile goes to auction, how much will it sell for??

[Image: Signature and coat of arms of Christian IV, King of Denmark and Norway, 1620.
Image: Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.]

Friendship is the Primary Ingredient for Well-Being

“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.”
-Marcus Tullius Cicero

“It’s clear loneliness serves a vital function by warning us when something essential for our survival—social connection—is lacking. The scientists who first recognized this vital function thought that perhaps if we could learn to respond to loneliness (like we do with hunger and thirst), instead of surrendering to it, we might be able to reduce both its duration and negative effects and actually improve the overall quality of our lives.”
– Vivek Murthy, Together 4

‘Happiness’ isn’t simple (You can learn all about the subjectivity of happiness, and the 4 Elements of Well-Being in the ‘Happiness’ section). However, if there is one single aspect topping the list of factors for living well, it is positive relationships.

“Happiness seems made to be shared.” – Pierre Corneille

One study identified number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors to explain about 70 percent of subjective well-being.5 Having positive relationships gives us a strong means of experiencing all of the Elements of well-being, most especially meaning through Love, Service, Expression, and Discovery.

“Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up. […] We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish6

Try It Out: One Check-In Per Day

Think of a time in your daily routine in which you can spend 5 minutes to send a message. Maybe it’s right before lunch, or shortly after waking up, or perhaps before going to sleep. The goal is to make a ritual of it.

During the allotted time, send one person a simple message: let them know you’re thinking of them. Maybe send a text or an email. Ask them how they are. It’s ok if it’s simple, as long as it’s sincere.

Here’s an example: “John! What’s up? I thought about you today while in the garden. How did that trip of yours go?” or “Hey Steph what’s new? It’s been a minute and I wonder how your life is going now that the leaves are changing color.”

This simple act of kindness will brighten your day and offer the same uplift to others. Regular gifts of consideration like these will also strengthen your friendships.

Blue Zones
According to research into Blue Zones, the longest-lived people in the world spent their time surrounded by people. Blue Zones are specific areas of the world where people tend to live longer than the average life expectancy and report a higher quality of life. Blue Zones exist in several places around the world and one of their common themes is having built-in practices which involve being social. For more on Blue Zones, go to

How to live to be 100+ | Dan Buettner | TED-Ed 
To find the path to long life and health, Dan Buettner and team study the world’s “Blue Zones,” communities whose elders live with vim and vigor to record-setting age. In his talk, he shares the 9 common diets and lifestyle habits keeping them spry past age 100.

Good Friends Might Be Your Best Brain Booster As You Age | Judith Graham
Blue Zones researchers cite studies that find people over the age of 80 benefit from social interaction.

Friendship enhances your physical and mental health.

There are tons of health benefits (backed by science) related to having strong social ties.7
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most extensive study of its kind, has taught us three things: 8

  1. Loneliness can kill as surely as smoking or alcoholism, and that when we are connected, we live longer and healthier lives.
  2. The quality of our relationships matters. It’s not the number of friends we have, or whether or not we are in a committed relationship that predicts thriving. Being in a high-conflict marriage is bad for one’s health. It is worse than divorce.
  3. Good relationships don’t just protect our health. They protect our mind. Memory loss and cognitive decline are more prevalent in lives permeated by conflict and disconnection.

Additional Infographics:

Loneliness is Detrimental

There is something more deadly than smoking

and obesity that no one is talking about: Loneliness.

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell

Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only a few of us are aware of how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

“During my years caring for patients, the most common condition I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”
– Vivek Murthy, Together 4

“Loneliness is an epidemic.”

In 2017, the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, added emotional well-being and loneliness to the list of big public health worries, right up there with obesity and smoking. He stated “rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” 9  According to a 2018 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 percent of all adults in the US say they often or always feel lonely or socially isolated.10

“Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people” – Vivek Murthy, Together 4

Murthy uses the term “epidemic” to describe the loneliness situation in the United States, which generally means a disease isolated to a certain geographic area. The reality is:

All around the world, people are lonely.

Remedy — Alesso

“I believe that loneliness is my disease…I believe that you are the remedy”

Millions of people around the world live in isolation or semi-isolation in terms of social interaction.

For example, some 15 percent of Japanese citizens say they have no social interaction at all outside the family. 11

Mexico is close behind at 14%, followed by the Czech Republic at 10%. 12

What about the rest of the world?

Unfortunately,  widespread data on loneliness in most non-westernized countries is non-existent, since the concept of loneliness as a health issue is a rather new idea. Non-westernized countries still heavily rely on tribal or village communities for survival and resources, so the snapshot of loneliness would be closer to that of ancient tribes.

Loneliness affects meaning in life, life span, and those around us.

A 2008 study found that among participants, social exclusion led to perceiving life as less meaningful.13 Using factors such as value, purpose, and self-worth, the study was able to examine the effects of forced social exclusion among adults. The results show when people feel socially excluded, their perception of the amount of meaning in their life is lower.

According to this study, people who have weak social relationships are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with strong social relationships.14  In Blue Zones, people live in close-knit communities surrounded by friends and family and live well into their 90s+. The opposite effect happens to those who live in social isolation.

According to Dr. Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,  “When we become chronically lonely, most of us are inclined to withdraw, whether we mean to or not, [researcher] John Cacioppo determined that our threat perception changes when we’re lonely, so we push people away and see risk and threat in benign social opportunities.”4

Researchers have identified three “dimensions” of loneliness:4 

  • Intimate: The longing for a close confidante.
  • Relational: The longing for quality friendships and social companionship.
  • Collective: The longing for a network or community of people who share a sense of purpose.

Loneliness breeds loneliness. Not to say it is contagious, but it affects everyone around you and can become a never-ending cycle if not addressed. Much like mental illness, there tends to be a stigma around loneliness, making it tough for most people to talk about. Interestingly, according to the BBC Loneliness Experiment, most people don’t judge others for being lonely, but feel shame regarding their own loneliness.15 Younger adults especially tended to report shame surrounding their own feelings of loneliness. Feelings of shame can make loneliness difficult to talk about and affect purpose and meaning in life.

Read more about the fundamental need for relationships on the Branches page ((needs link)).

Take Action

Looking for some ways to combat loneliness?

  • Meet New People
    • Meeting new people to combat loneliness may seem simple because it is! If you are experiencing gaps in connection and feeling lonely, it may be time to make some new friends.
  • Join a group or club
    • Community helps with loneliness because there are generally more people to connect with. This helps fill gaps in availability and leaves chances of “clicking” with someone higher.
  • Text or email a Friend (See above)
  • Normalize talking about loneliness.
    • Talk about how you’re feeling to a family member, friend, or professional. It may seem vulnerable at first and that is ok!
  • Call a friend while you go for a walk
    • Exercise and communicating with friends both release dopamine, so go get that double dose.

Table for One

Picture yourself at the host stand of a nice restaurant asking for a table for one.
What feelings come up?
Would you ever do this? Why or why not?
What do you think other people in the restaurant might think of you?
How would you act? Would you get your phone out? Would you get take-away instead?

Sitting alone at a restaurant is a completely normal human experience, yet some may feel awkward doing it. Why? Because we have a perceived stigma that being alone is bad. Everyone experiences loneliness, yet it is a vulnerable experience to admit. Most humans do not tend to enjoy their vulnerability being on display for strangers, so situations like sitting alone at a restaurant give our brains huge red flags.

Try it!

Treat yourself to a nice date at a restaurant you’ve been wanting to try. Alone.
Own your alone-ness. Take time for self-care and to self empathize with what you are feeling. Keep your phone away and do not be afraid to talk to strangers. You never know, you may even meet someone new!

3 Ways Loneliness Impacts Your Health
A short video from the Washington Post cites research on loneliness and the negative health effects it has shown.

The Lethality of Loneliness | John Cacioppo at TEDxDesMoines
John Cacioppo, leading social neuroscientist, explains the science and negative effects of loneliness.

Key Takeaways:

  • Homesickness, bereavement, and unrequited love are variations on the experience of loneliness.
  • In the 1980’s, scholars estimated about 20% of Americans felt lonely at any given point in time. Today, around 40% of Americans report feeling lonely at any given time.
  • Loneliness increases morning cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
  • It’s not the quantity of friends, it is the quality of a few relationships that actually matter.


Here’s the Scoop:

  • Humans (and most mammals) are social creatures. We have evolved to be and have remained social throughout our history.
  • Tribes have always provided us with community, which meet our need for belonging.
  • The need for friendship shifted from a physical survival need to a social/emotional need and is still as important for our well-being.
  • Positive relationships are the key ingredient to well-being.
  • Being social is good for our health while isolation and loneliness are detrimental.
  • Everyone experiences loneliness at some point, the more we de-stigmatize talking about it, the more we can overcome it.

Loneliness and Happiness are both contagious, which one would you rather catch??

The following videos and articles are helpful in breaking down the science and statistics behind why friendship is integral to our health. If you are ready to get into the deep end of making friends, click below to continue your journey.

Friendship Friendship: The Gist The Benefits of Friendship Friendship Myths Types of Friends Connection Reflection Looking Inward Nurture Exiting Friendships New Friendships Social Skills Understanding Community Building Community Friendship Practice and Exercises Friendship Resources

Additional Resources


Title / Link Description Key Takeaways
26 Facts About the Science of Friendship – Mental_Floss List Show Ep. 409 Mental Floss is a weekly show where knowledge junkies get their fix of trivia-tastic information. This week, author John Green tells us facts about friendship that are backed by research. People lose half their friends every 7 years.
Having a childhood best friend leads to emotional resilience.
Most of us have fewer friends than our friends have.
The Secret to Living Longer May be Your Social Life The Italian island of Sardinia has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland and ten times as many as North America. Why? According to psychologist Susan Pinker, it’s not a sunny disposition or a low-fat, gluten-free diet that keeps the islanders healthy — it’s their emphasis on close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions. Learn more about super longevity as Pinker explains what it takes to live to 100 and beyond. At least 3 stable relationships is the magic number.
Face-to-face contact is why there are the lowest rates of dementia among people who are socially engaged.
Social women who have breast cancer are four times more likely to survive their disease than loners are.
It’s a biological imperative to know we belong.
The Critical Importance of Friends on Your Happiness | Mike Duffy | TEDxBerkeley What makes us happy and what can increase our happiness? Mike Duffy has researched happiness for over 30 years in an attempt to provide answers. Our happiness depends mightily on the strength and number of ties to other people.
Above all, be lighthearted, be positive, and choose to be happy.
The Science of Friendship | Lydia Denworth Science writer Lydia Denworth asks: What would happen if we made friendship the template of all our relationships? She discusses the biology and evolution of connection between individuals. Are you living a life that prioritizes positive relationships? Friendship is hard to define, and therefore hard to study.
We may have relationships upside down.
We should invest in strong bonds
Will Young: Friendships Are Your Lifeline | TED Talk Friends William Young and Christopher Sweeney explain how their friendship helped them both through difficult moments in their life. They explore why friendships need to be places we can open up to each other in order to build strong, honest bonds that can end up being a lifeline. Friends don’t always need us to have all the answers. Most of the time, listening is enough.
The Purpose of Friendship Friendship should be one of the high points of existence, and yet it’s also the most routinely disappointing reality. Getting clear about what friendship is for isn’t cynical; it provides the foundation for genuine bonds. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is actually for.
All the Lonely People | TEDx Dolva is the CEO and co-founder of No Isolation. No Isolation’s goal is to help as many people as possible out of social isolation and loneliness by making technology available for those who can not just use generic solutions to stay connected. When it comes to heart disease, loneliness is a bigger contributor than obesity.
In Norway, (happiest country in the world) 16% of the population reports they feel lonely everyday.
Video Conferencing has a positive impact on social isolation.

Related Articles

Title / Link Key Takeaways
What Is Friendship? | HowStuffWorks “Much like romance, if you’ve ever tried to make a new friend and things just didn’t click, it’s likely because one of the basic components of friendship simply wasn’t there.”
Quality friendships are extremely important to our general happiness.
We as individuals prefer different types of social structures.
It’s important to note that in today’s social media-heavy society, people often get confused about their friend status.
Health Benefits of Friendship As it turns out, having friends is not only good for your soul but it’s good for your body, too.
A three-year Swedish study of more than 13,600 men and women found that having few or no close friends increased the risk of having a first-time heart attack by about 50 percent.
People are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and successfully quit smoking if they have a network of friends and family.
Not all types of friendship are good for your health.
Work and the Loneliness Epidemic Former Surgeon General of the United States explains why reducing isolation at work is good for business.
Aristotle’s Timeless Advice On What Friendship is and Why It Matters. Philosopher Aristotle identified three types of friendships: Ones based on utility or pleasure, and one on mutual appreciation of each other’s values.
Friendships based on virtues build the strongest connections and last.
The idea that good friendship is crucial to a well-lived life is relevant today.
“Many young people go through different phases in their views on enjoyment, and quite often, the people in their lives tend to change as the phase they’re in re-calibrates over time.”
Why Having Friends At Work Is Important Infographic We found some incredible statistics that prove that having a good group of friends at work is not only a nice-to-have, but it can make everyone work better.
1 in 3 adults met one of their closest friends at work.
Improvements like larger lunch tables can boost productivity by 25%
70% of people report friends at work as crucial to being happy at work.

Related Scientific Studies

Title / Link Description
Friendship and Natural Selection A study of genomes in friends shows we are similar to our friends on a molecular level, showing that friends may be a kind of “functional kin.”
The Evolutionary Origins of Friendship | Annual Review of Psychology Convergent evidence from many species reveals the evolutionary origins of human friendship.
Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review A Meta-Analytic Review of studies shows loneliness is worse for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Social Support Mediates Loneliness and Human Herpesvirus Type 6 (HHV-6) Antibody Titers The current study investigated the impact of a severe environmental stressor and the role that declining social integration played in mediating its effect on loneliness and immune status.
Study: How the Immune System Could Control Social Behavior Researchers have found a new mechanism that could explain the link between social dysfunction and immune dysfunction.
Feelings of Loneliness, but not Social Isolation, Predict Dementia Onset: Results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL) Researchers make the distinction between being alone and feeling lonely. Feeling lonely rather than being alone is associated with an increased risk of clinical dementia in later life and can be considered a major risk factor that, independently of vascular disease, depression and other confounding factors, deserves clinical attention.
Social Support and Health: A Review of Physiological Processes Potentially Underlying Links to Disease Outcomes Bert N Uchino studies the effects of social support on various immune system functions. Consistent with epidemiological evidence, social support appears to be related to more positive “biological profiles” across these disease-relevant systems.
Loneliness and Neuroendocrine, Cardiovascular, and Inflammatory Stress Responses in Middle-Aged Men and Women Andrew Steptoe, Natalie Owen, Sabine R Kunz-Ebrecht, and Lena Brydon use a loneliness scale to study correlations between social isolation and various physical responses.
Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo study the cost of loneliness. Evidence indicates that loneliness heightens sensitivity to social threats and motivates the renewal of social connections, but it can also impair executive functioning, sleep, and mental and physical well-being. Together, these effects contribute to higher rates of morbidity and mortality in lonely older adults.


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Health Infographic References

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  4. Samson, Kurt (2011) Stronger Social Support Shown to Improve Early Breast Cancer Outcomes, Oncology Times: October 10th, 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 19 – p 36-38
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Map Infographic References

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