Why is having friends important to our mental health?

friends important to our mental health

We all crave friendships. After all, humans are social animals and our connections with others define much of our lives. Friends are people with whom we share our joys, sorrows, and countless everyday experiences. But it turns out that beyond this basic social need, there’s a scientific basis behind friendships.

Research consistently shows that having friends is important for our mental and physical health. In particular, studies show that people who have friends have higher overall life satisfaction and are less likely to suffer from depression and other mental health disorders (Choi et al., 2020). What’s even more surprising, strong social bonds with our friends can lead to better immune function and a reduced risk of chronic diseases (Steptoe et al., 2013).

So why is having friends important to our mental health? In this article, we’ll explain the links between friendships and mental health and discuss how having friends can contribute to your psychological well-being.

Science Behind Friendships

When we spend quality time with friends and share our thoughts and emotions with them, our brains and bodies experience significant changes. In fact, engaging in social interactions with friends activates specific parts of the brain that are involved in pleasure, learning, and stress reduction.

To be more precise, when we experience a strong emotional connection with another person, our bodies release oxytocin — a so-called “love hormone” which, in turn, triggers the release of the feel-good hormones — serotonin and dopamine. As a result, our blood sugar levels decrease, our bodies enter a physiologically calm and secure state and we can handle stress more effectively. This biochemical reaction has a positive impact on our overall health.

Studies show that talking with a supportive friend with whom we can relax and express our emotions helps us effectively handle stress. On the other hand, interactions with ambivalent friends — those who can be supportive at times but lead to feelings of uncertainty other times — may not offer the same stress-reducing benefits and even increase your stress hormones or blood sugar levels (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2007).

Interestingly, friendships have a lot in common with romantic relationships. In terms of their impact on our mental health. Both types of relationships involve strong emotional bonds and provide emotional support. Similar to intimate relationships, friendships involve chemistry, attachments, and intimacy. Consequently, friendships can also impact our psychological well-being.

Mental Health Benefits of Having Friends

Friendships come with numerous empirically proven benefits for our mental health. After all, having friends means you have emotional, psychological, and practical support in times of need. Let’s discuss some ways in which friends can enhance your mental well-being and contribute positively to your life:

1)   Emotional Support

Did you know that a positive mood is contagious among adolescent social networks?  According to a study published in the Royal Society, emotions can spread through social groups and affect the mood and overall mental health of the individuals within those groups (Hill et al., 2015). When it comes to friendships, this effect can be translated as a form of emotional support.

The truth is that when friends share positive emotions and support, it helps an individual cope with their problems, but also, this dynamic spreads a general sense of well-being through their entire social circle. Therefore, thanks to the emotional support system friends provide, you can effectively deal with psychological stressors that might have otherwise led to anxiety or depression.

2)   Positive Reinforcement

In behaviorism, positive reinforcement can be defined as an encouragement of a desirable behavior through rewards or positive outcomes. As studies show, such small acts can sometimes improve our self-esteem and self-efficacy. Consequently, this technique is often used in Cognitive-Behavioral therapy to help clients create lasting behavioral changes and improve their mental health.

Surprisingly, just communicating with your friends might as well provide similar outcomes, and here’s why:

When friends explicitly express appreciation for your qualities or achievements, or when they encourage you during challenging times, their actions work exactly as positive reinforcement. This means that validation from peers can enhance your perception of self-worth. What’s more, such a kind of support and encouragement from friends can help you internalize positive messages, which can lead to improved mental resilience over time.

3)   Coping with Challenges

Every individual deals with life’s challenges in their own way. But one thing is for sure: having someone who listens and supports you through these times can positively affect your psychological well-being.

First of all, communicating with your friends during tough times can help you reduce stress and cope with challenges effectively. For example, a 2011 study found that emotional support from friends can greatly reduce the impact of high-stress events by promoting faster recovery and preventing negative psychological effects (Thoits, 2011). Studies also show that friendship is a potent stress buffer for adolescents who have adverse childhood experiences (Scheuplein & Van Harmelen, 2022).

This means that the act of sharing our challenges with trusted friends can be therapeutic in itself

4)   Increased Sense of Belonging

One more significant benefit having friends is directly linked to is a sense of belonging — a fundamental human need for social connection and acceptance within a group. Usually, the sense of belonging is achieved through the principle of reciprocity which, in terms of friendship, can be defined as a mutual exchange of support and understanding.

Various studies prove that friendships can act as a secure base for adolescents to cope with psychological challenges and as a result, this leads to a stronger sense of belonging (Hamm & Faircloth, 2005). Recent research shows that this sense of belonging isn’t only beneficial but is vital across all ages, as it contributes to lower rates of mental health (Pezirkianidis et al., 2023).

What’s a Healthy Number of Friends

As humans, we have the capability of forming numerous relationships but when it comes to close, meaningful friendships, our emotional resources are limited. While you might think that the more friends you have, the better for your mental health, actually, that’s not always the case. That’s because close connections require energy and time. But these resources are limited and we can’t realistically maintain meaningful connections with numerous people without sacrificing quality.

Psychologists suggest that 3 to 5 close friendships are sufficient to provide emotional support and depth without overwhelming your social capacities. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, on average we can maintain about 150 stable relationships, but among these connections, the closest circle consists of a maximum of 5 people. On the other hand, having more than 5 close friends doesn’t increase life satisfaction any more.

Therefore, the quality of your friendships is more important than the quantity. That could be the reason why the average person in America has between 3 and 5 close friends, according to a 2021 survey. In fact, 49% of US adults report having 3 or fewer close friends. And you should also aim for a few strong, meaningful relationships to enhance your life satisfaction and well-being.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, it’s important to develop healthy friendships in order to improve our mental well-being. Communicating with our friends, or just having them by our side offers numerous benefits for our psychological well-being and helps us effectively cope with life’s challenges. However, it’s not always straightforward to build and maintain friendships, as it requires emotional intelligence, effort, and sometimes, guidance.

If you find it challenging to develop strong bonds or if your current friendships are not as supportive as they could be, seeking professional help might be a wise choice.

Our licensed counselors at Health for Life Counseling are here to help you develop essential interpersonal skills for building strong bonds with your friends and building a supportive community around you.

Reach out to us at Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or schedule an online session to improve your friendships, and as a result, your mental health. And if financial concerns are holding you back from seeking help, note that we accept a wide range of health insurance options, including ASR, Priority Health, Golden Rule, Optum, and many more.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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