Did you know that your friends are a powerful (but underestimated) weapon against disease, depression, anxiety and stress–that may even prolong your life?
• Friends keep us healthy! A Duke University study showed that patients who had fewer than four friends were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease! (1) Of women suffering from breast cancer, those who had few close friends were four times as likely to die as women with ten or more friends.
• Friends improve our outlook on life. A recent study showed that when someone had a friend with them, they were more optimistic in estimating the difficulty of a task than those who faced the task alone. College students from the University of Virginia were fitted with heavy backpacks and taken to the base of a steep hill. Students who had a friend standing next to them, saw the hill as less steep. The longer the friendship, the less steep the hill appeared!
• Friends can reduce pain. According to a new study by UCLA psychologists, just thinking about a loved one reduces physical pain(2)!
Social scientists have examined how friendships develop. Initially, we may be drawn to someone because of a physical attraction or because of our contact with him or her at work or school. A friendship may subsequently develop through sharing mutual interests, having similar attitudes and values, or simply because of close proximity (which tends to accentuate our feelings—whether positive or negative—about those with whom we are in continual contact). Then, we begin to feel comfortable sharing intimate thoughts and feelings and we care about their wellbeing almost as much as we do our own.
What they don’t know, however, is why friendship is so important. And they can only speculate why friends help us live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. And God himself is a communion of persons. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). As Pope John Paul II explained in his catechesis on Genesis, it is precisely in the communion of persons that man becomes the image of God.
Friendship is vital for a full life. Jesus had friends. He often spent time with Lazarus, Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). He wept when Lazarus died and then raised him from the dead (11:1-44). He spent his ministry in the close companionship with his disciples, one of whom was known as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (cf John 13:23, John 21:7, and John 21: 20).
Friends are faithful. Like Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Friends seek the best for each other, for the other’s sake. This is the “virtuous” friendship that Aristotle deemed the highest form of friendship. True friends will seek what is best for each other—for their friends’ sake, not for selfish or utilitarian reasons.
As John Paul II wrote in Love and Responsibility, “Anyone who treats a person as the means to an end does violence to the very essence of the other” (Wojtyla 27). A true friend never uses someone for selfish reasons. Furthermore, a true friend will seek what is best for his friend.
We intuitively grasp this truth. We typically describe a friend as someone we trust, whose company we enjoy, who accepts us and cares about us, and with whom we feel comfortable sharing our intimate thoughts and feelings.
We may have 300 “friends” on Facebook, but most of these will be acquaintances with whom we share impersonal news or who are tangentially related through other acquaintances. The true friend (Aristotle’s virtuous friend) is one who cares for us for our own sake (not because he is getting something out of it), who strives after virtue, and who wants what is truly the best for us.
Next month, I will look at unhealthy friendships.