Conventional wisdom suggests that good friendships enhance an individual’s sense of happiness and overall well-being. Indeed, a number of studies have found that strong social supports improve a woman’s prospects for good health and longevity. Conversely, loneliness and a lack of social supports have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infections, and cancer, as well as higher mortality rates overall. Two researchers have even termed friendship networks a “behavioral vaccine” that boosts both physical and mental health.
While there is an impressive body of research linking friendship and health, the precise reasons for the connection remain unclear. Most of the studies in this area are large prospective studies that follow people over a period of time, and while there may be a correlation between the two variables (friendship and health status), researchers still do not know if there is a cause and effect relationship, such as the notion that good friendships actually improve health.
A number of theories have attempted to explain this link. These theories have included that good friends encourage their friends to lead more healthy lifestyles; that good friends encourage their friends to seek help and access services when needed; that good friends enhance their friends’ coping skills in dealing with illness and other health problems; and that good friends actually affect physiological pathways that are protective of health.