Professor Ewan Gillon is a Chartered Psychologist and Clinical Director of First Psychology Scotland with centres in Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Inverness, Edinburgh, Glasgow & Borders.
“In good times and bad times … that’s what friends are for”: published over 35 years ago, Rod Stewart’s number one single sums up just how important friendships are to our wellbeing.
And with International Friendship Day on Monday 30th July just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to consider what our own friendships really mean to us.
It’s essential for our mental health and wellbeing that we all have people in our life to share the highs and the lows. Friends can often be closer to us than family members and might be the ones we confide in more easily.
On the other hand, taking this bond and trust for granted can be dangerous. With more people across all age groups confessing to being lonelier than ever before, it’s important to evaluate and nurture friendships to enjoy the positive effects they can have on our life in general.
Friends with health benefits
Having friends definitely adds stability, understanding and some good laughs to our lives, but friendships also benefit our physical and mental health too. Research has shown that simply by seeing our friends our mood can improve. This is due to the release of endorphins into the brain which cause positive emotions and happiness.
Regular contact is even further reaching and can help build and maintain confidence and self-esteem. On a more practical level, talking to friends can help us cope with life’s traumas and stresses as well as allowing us to see things from a different perspective..
In times of great hardship friends provide solace by offering a shoulder to cry on. Studies have shown that grieving alone is only likely to worsen the pain, whilst having a friend’s support at that time can be a great comfort.
There are even studies suggesting that friendships increase life expectancy. This is particularly the case in later life as pensioners without close friends have been found to be more prone to developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and depression compared to those with an active social circle. In fact, the correlation between life span and social ties has been found to be twice as strong as that of exercising. So, if you are looking for an excuse to skip the gym today, why not meet up with a pal for a catch up instead?
Social media changes the game
Traditionally, human relationships were formed and maintained in person – through school, work or common interests. This has changed radically in the last ten or so years, however. With social media continuing to grow, younger generations face a different landscape in which to grow their social bonds. Remaining in contact no longer requires physical proximity and whilst there are many benefits to this there are also a few downsides.
There is no denying that being able to communicate with friends across the globe at any time and often free of charge is a good thing. Not only does social media allow us to maintain friendships and other relationships, it can also improve them and strengthen the bond between two people.
However, generally this dynamic changes if relationships become online only as connections between individuals tend to become distant and shallow. To keep friendships strong, it is important to have some facetime (pun intended) every now and again.
Another difference between traditional and social media contact is the lack of exclusivity – people often do something else whilst communicating on social media as well. This means you are only receiving part of another person’s attention, making the interaction less meaningful. Therefore, while it may be easier and less time consuming to communicate over social media, it is much less likely to result in a strong friendship.
And whilst millenials appear to favour communicating through electronic devices, studies have found that less time spent in the presence of friends correlates with feelings of loneliness and depression despite social media communications. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that young people are 10% more likely to be lonely than any other age group. This is a worrying statistic, especially considering the amount of time this generation does devote to contact over social media.
Looking at current evidence, while social media may be an effective tool for maintaining friendships especially across wider distances, it is no substitute for interacting face-to-face and having a good chin-wag. Time to get that regular date in the diary now to meet up with your friends and nurture those relationships for the future.