New research confirms good friendships linked to improved health


Strong, steady and healthy friendships may contribute to good physical health, according to new research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Authors Brian P. Don, Amie M. Gordon and Wendy Berry Mendes conducted a daily study following 4,005 people over three weeks, examining relationships, stress and physiology, assessing the subjects’ heart rate and blood pressure. The research participants completed check-ins every three days on their smartphones or smartwatches, reflecting in detail their positive or negative associations and experiences in their closest relationships.

Their results found that on average, having more positive experiences in social relationship settings was linked to better coping abilities, lower stress and lower systolic blood pressure.

However, vacillating relationships were, on average, unhelpful — the negative experiences outweigh the positive.

“Both positive and negative experiences in our relationships contribute to our daily stress, coping and physiology, like blood pressure and heart rate reactivity,” Don said in a press release. He continued, “it’s not just how we feel about our relationships overall that matters; the ups and downs are important too.”

BYU psychology student Hannah Hornberger interpreted the study and compared her own research, confirming the correlation between social connection and stress management.

“Innately, we are social beings and we are wired to connect with people,” Hornberger said. “It’s super important, more than we know … having that connection just helps us grow and improve and see a world outside of ourselves.”

Hornberger recommends having even just one person for connection and comfort, as that also adds significantly to one’s overall health.

“I think a lot of it has to do with empathy too because that’s what we need as humans. It’s empathy and belonging and you can’t have that without social connection,” she said.

Don noted broader implications of the study, including considering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected relationships and therefore physical health.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, relationships have been facing unprecedented challenges, turbulence and change … Because the COVID-19 pandemic has created considerable strain, turbulence and variability in people’s relationships, it may indirectly alter stress, coping and physiology in daily life, all of which have important implications for physical well-being,” Don said.

These effects are ongoing.

Kyle Gee and Noah Brown, however, have been friends since high school and through the pandemic, and agree that spending quality time together improves their feelings of health and well-being. The pair disc golfs together, allowing them to scratch that social itch in an easy-going environment.

“Part of a good friendship is being able to be yourself … not stressing out about what other people think of you, just being yourself and relaxing. If you’re more positive you’re happier and you’re going to go out and do stuff together and it’s going to be a lot more beneficial for your health,” Gee said.

It is important to note that people do not have to spend time with their friends in physical activity to experience this study’s effects — the most paramount factor is simply quality.

BYU marketing major Seth Knowlton has been friends with his roommates for about a year and a half and has noticed that when he is around them, his life improves extensively. Together, the friend group hosts devotionals, reading their scriptures and holding each other accountable for what they learn, and Knowlton finds he has more energy and is happier because of it.

“The biggest thing is that we wanted to take the time each morning to pray and talk together and have scripture study and to basically give us motivation and energy to do good things throughout the day and serve others,” he said. “It’s like a joy to come home and talk to these guys.”

The researchers caution against interpreting this study as proof that relationship experiences have physiological effects, but recognize that their findings contain “associations from daily life that illustrate how relationships and physical health are often intertwined,” according to the press release.

Don hopes that in the future, researchers examine other physiological states, such as neuroendocrine or sympathetic nervous systems, to gain a fuller understanding of how relationships affect health to “reveal different patterns of associations.”

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