Discover the connection between health and friendship, and how to promote and maintain healthy friendships.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Friendships can have a major impact on your health and well-being, but it's not always easy to build or maintain friendships. Understand the importance of friendships in your life and what you can do to develop and nurture friendships.

Good friends are good for your health. Friends can help you celebrate good times and provide support during bad times. Friends prevent loneliness and give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too. Friends can also:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise

Many adults find it hard to develop new friendships or keep up existing friendships. Friendships may take a back seat to other priorities, such as work or caring for children or aging parents. You and your friends may have grown apart due to changes in your lives or interests. Or maybe you've moved to a new community and haven't yet found a way to meet people.

Developing and maintaining good friendships takes effort. The enjoyment and comfort friendship can provide, however, makes the investment worthwhile.

Quality counts more than quantity. While it's good to cultivate a diverse network of friends and acquaintances, you also want to nurture a few truly close friends who will be there for you through thick and thin.

To meet new people who might become your friends, you have to go to places where others are gathered. Don't limit yourself to one strategy for meeting people. The broader your efforts, the greater your likelihood of success.

For example, try several of these ideas:

  • Attend community events. Get together with a group of people working toward a goal you believe in, such as an election or the cleanup of a natural area. Find a group with similar interests in an activity, such as auto racing, gardening, reading or making crafts.
  • Volunteer. Offer your time or talents at a hospital, place of worship, museum, community center, charitable group or other organization. You can form strong connections when you work with people who have mutual interests.
  • Extend and accept invitations. Invite a friend to join you for coffee or lunch. When you're invited to a social gathering, say yes. Contact someone who recently invited you to an activity and return the favor.
  • Take up a new interest. Take a college or community education course to meet people who have similar interests. Join a class at a local gym, senior center or community fitness facility.
  • Join a faith community. Take advantage of special activities and get-to-know-you events for new members.
  • Take a walk. Grab your kids or pet and head outside. Chat with neighbors who are also out and about or head to a popular park and strike up conversations there.

Above all, stay positive. You may not become friends with everyone you meet, but maintaining a friendly attitude and demeanor can help you improve the relationships in your life and sow the seeds of friendship with new acquaintances.

Joining a chat group or online community might help you make or maintain connections and relieve loneliness. However, research suggests that use of social networking sites doesn't necessarily translate to a larger offline network or closer offline relationships with network members. In addition, remember to exercise caution when sharing personal information or arranging an activity with someone you've only met online.

Developing and maintaining healthy friendships involves give-and-take. Sometimes you're the one giving support, and other times you're on the receiving end. Letting friends know you care about them and appreciate them can help strengthen your bond. It's as important for you to be a good friend as it is to surround yourself with good friends.

To nurture your friendships:

  • Accept yourself. Cultivate a healthy, realistic self-image. Work on building your self-esteem by taking care of yourself — eat a healthy diet and include physical activity in your daily routine. Insecurity and constant self-criticism can be turnoffs to potential friends.
  • Accept others. Don't judge. Give your friends space to change, grow and make mistakes. Encourage your friends to freely express their emotions. Don't belittle or make fun of what the other person thinks or feels.
  • Be positive. Think of friendship as an emotional bank account. Every act of kindness and every expression of approval are deposits into this account, while criticism and negativity draw down the account. Nonstop complaining puts a strain on a friendship.
  • Don't compete. Don't let friendships turn into a battle over who makes the most money or who has the nicest home. Instead, admire their talents and celebrate their good fortune.
  • Listen up. Ask what's going on in your friends' lives. Let the other person know you are paying close attention through eye contact, body language and occasional brief comments like, "That sounds fun." When friends share details of hard times or difficult experiences, be empathetic, but don't give advice unless your friends ask for it.
  • Respect boundaries. Keep confidential any personal information that your friends share with you. Try not to ask questions that make your friends uncomfortable.

Remember, it's never too late to build new friendships or reconnect with old friends. Investing time in making friends and strengthening your friendships can pay off in better health and a brighter outlook for years to come.

Feb. 05, 2014