by Maggie Buckley, MBA and Dionetta Hudzinski, RN, MN
It is well known fact, supported by research studies there are positive benefits from those who are married compared with those who are not. Reports of a higher perceived quality of life, improved health status and increased life span have been documented. On the other hand, loneliness has been found to cause negative effects on a person’s overall health status and quality of life. Study after study has shown that having an active social network of friends, relatives, and others contributes to good health. Friendships can be powerful lifelines for many, no matter the marital status.
Social Isolation and Loneliness
“Social isolation can cause chronic stress, which causes systemic inflammation, which causes severe, long term tissue damage (pain) and has a negative effect on emotional well-being (Rick Bateman).”
People who live with chronic pain are at high risk for social isolation. The severity of the pain may contribute to the stress as well as the loss of social contacts. Many have to quit working due to the pain and as a result lost contact with coworkers. With job loss, there are huge financial losses, changes in personal self-worth and often role changes within the family. The pain may limit mobility on many days and as a result the person with pain may cancel appointments to meet others for social events. After a time, these invitations begin to decrease in frequency as friends and family drift away.
Where Do You Stand?
Oftentimes we take friendships for granted. Without proper attention the relationship may fade. Married or not, consider fortifying your health by tending your friendships. A strong friendship may be measured in many ways; i.e., mutual availability, respect, accepting help, offering help, frequency of contact, and appreciation for the other person. The ability to laugh (and sometimes cry) together is a precious treasure that friends share.
Are you and your friend available to one another? Whether you meet up for a cup of coffee/tea every couple of weeks, talk on the phone regularly or exchange emails/texts, the idea is that you are available to each other; you know you may rely on that friend to be there, listen to you and share with you AND you do the same for them.
Respect is the key to a successful friendship. Mutual respect means that each of you has a personal life outside of the friendship, such as work, personal and family commitments. Both are you are unique, offer special talents and gifts as a human being and can share valuable perspectives from differing life experiences. Be open and be aware of your friends’ needs and limits and respectfully communicate your own needs and limits.
Learn to graciously accept help from your friends when it is offered. Research shows that, especially when facing a catastrophic health event, having a circle of supportive people helping you through increases your survival rate. It does not matter whether your friends are visiting to talk or helping you out by doing your shopping or household chores, your friends are there and interacting benefits both of you. Let them help you and be there when it is their time of need.
Strive to offer help to your friends as part of a rhythm of life. Will you be out running errands and passing by your friend’s home/office? Text them of your plans and ask if you might help them by picking something up for them to save them a trip. Who knows, maybe the timing is just right so you both can meet up for a coffee/tea and quick in-person catch-up. Be there when your friend needs support with any life event like a health issue, divorce or moving. Offer your assistance from within your own strengths. Even if you are not able to physically move stuff, you may be a skilled researcher or give the best hugs. Be there to listen, really listen.
Frequency of Contact
Contact may be a phone call, a face to face meeting to have coffee, a meal or simply to talk and share life stories. Staying in touch with your friends regularly is made easier with all of today’s electronic devices letting you get a message out quickly by text or email. Reflect upon the joy you felt the last time you received a ‘real’ letter in the mail and consider spreading that joy.
Let your friend know that you appreciate them. Saying ‘Thank you’ is a natural response for most of us upon receiving a gift, a ride or assistance. Appreciation is the act of noticing and recognizing your friend in a positive way. Complementing your friend, acknowledging their accomplishments are best done in a timely manner with sincerity. If you feel it and mean it, share it. People can tell if you are genuine, so be true. Finding and sharing the joy is the best medicine for whatever ails you.
If you’ve taken inventory and decide that you need new friends or more friends, look at ways to expand your social circle:
- Join a club
- Volunteer your talents
- Introduce yourself to your neighbors
- Participate in face to face support groups, online chat rooms or discussion boards.
Explore the types of meetings posted online at a website like MeetUp.com. Any of these activities will lead you to people with whom you share a common interest. From there you can chose to expand that casual relationship to a friendship with mutual benefits.
Many people consider their pets to be their best friends and research bears out the benefits of sharing your life with an animal. Animals support you emotionally and physically by welcoming you home and encouraging you to get up and move. Research indicates that pets are as important as people when it comes to improving health.
There have been studies and media reports in recent years about how socializing improves health and longevity. There have also been some stories about how living alone (by choice or due to circumstances beyond one’s control) may adversely affect health. Take inventory of your life—your friends and interactions; measure the success of your relationships. More isn’t always better when cultivating successful friendships so focus on the special friends/relatives that feel right to you. People with happy friends are happier than those surround themselves with unhappy, selfish, shallow friends or have few interactions with others.
Go find the joy and share it with your friends. This, too, will ease the pain. Share your stories and tell us about your reach out efforts.
For more information about friendships and their effect on your well-being, see Social Wellness.