The health benefits of strong, long-lasting friendships and how to strengthen your connection with others

Yasser Chalid/Getty ImagesLong-lasting friendships help us feel more confident and lead a happier life.
  • Long-lasting friendships are important because they help boost our confidence, happiness, and overall wellbeing.
  • Studies show that friendships help create a sense of belonging and offer strength in face of adversity.
  • To strengthen a friendship you should consider three factors: positivity, consistency, and vulnerability.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Our friends play a large role in what we cherish, how we think, and ultimately who we become. Therefore, having healthy friendships that make us feel accepted and valued can have a large impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Yet, 61% of Americans report being lonely. Loneliness is a sign that we’re yearning for connection, says Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship. So, a small amount of loneliness is healthy because it encourages us to connect more with others, but an overwhelming level is detrimental to our health and is associated with depression, worsened sleep, and poorer cardiovascular function.

According to Shasta Nelson, who has been studying friendships for 12 years and author of Frientimacy, to overcome loneliness and develop strong relationships, we should focus on positivity, consistency, and vulnerability.

Developing strong friendships founded on those values takes time and effort, but those relationships are essential to our health. It is important then, to reflect on why the friendships in our lives are so important, and what we can do to strengthen them.

Why are friendships important?

According to Denworth, friends are just as important for our mental and physical wellbeing as proper diet and exercise. In fact, one 2010 study found that those with strong social relationships had a 50% decreased risk of death for the elderly indicating that strong friendships increase longevity.

Marisa G. Franco, PhD, a psychologist who has done extensive research on the science of cultivating strong friendships, adds that strong social connections can help prevent depression and psychosis, and help relieve trauma. Here are some other ways friendship are important:

Friendships can lead to a happier life: One 2002 study that compared traits of very happy people against moderately or unhappy people found that the happiest people also tended to be the ones that were highly social and reported having strong social relationships.

Nelson agrees, adding that friends are the number one contributing factor to our happiness. An estimated 70% of our happiness comes down to our relationships so it’s nearly impossible to be happy without healthy friendships, Franco says.

Friendships can help you through tough times:Whether through listening to us, reassuring us, or just being a shoulder to lean on, friends can be a great source of support during difficult times.

A 2007 study examined the role of friendships as students transitioned to college — an opportunity for more independence but also a period at which they are at a greater risk for social isolation. The study concluded that having friends gave individuals a greater sense of belongingness.

Another 2016 study found that long-lasting friendships that were formed during childhood, “can help craft meaning and strength amid substantial adversity.”

Friendships can help you feel more confident: A2019 study found that having close friends boosts our self-esteem, and vice versa. In particular, the friendships we develop in childhood and maintain as we grow older help boost our self-esteem and build our confidence because of the sense of connection that comes from long-lasting relationships that stood the test of time and overcame minor conflicts. In other words, experiencing and overcoming conflicts with each other may help us gain confidence in our ability to overcome future conflicts with others.

Studies have shown that building strong friendships involves brain structures that are located close to parts of the brain involved with scanning — for example, like scanning facial expressions — and those involved with both planning and regulating our impulsivity. Perhaps because our ability to control our feelings and plan for the future are among the qualities that enable a friendship to deepen.

Friendships help combat loneliness: As Denworth explains, loneliness can make you feel less inclined to be social — thus trapping us in a cycle of feeling more lonely and as a result further isolating ourselves.

This is likely because depression and isolation are associated with disrupted sleep patterns and reduced focus. In other words, our higher-order reasoning skills — the very abilities that make us human and capable of empathy — are compromised when we feel isolated or depressed.

But a 2005 study, which examined the psychological effects of enrichment programs for older women, found that social connection relieved loneliness. After all, a nurturing friend may be just the antidote.

How to strengthen friendships?

According to Nelson, in order to determine the strength of our relationships, and make them stronger, we need to focus on three things:

  1. Positivity: Are we experiencing more positive emotions than negative in our relationships? If not, we should take steps to recognise why and make changes.
  2. Consistency: How often are we engaging with those we care about? Healthy relationships need consistent nurturing whether it’s shooting them a quick email or catching up over a lengthy video call. For this, the University of Sydney recommends scheduling time to talk each week, studying together, setting up coffee dates, working out together, or even setting up some time to just relax and unwind together.
  3. Vulnerability: Are we open and honest with our friends? Nelson, Franco, and Denworth all agree that being vulnerable with those we want to grow closest to is one of the most important factors in nurturing healthy relationships. According to research from BYU, this is because being vulnerable in our relationships allows us to develop more security, comfort, and acceptance in them. As Franco explains, many things we consider burdens on our relationships — like being vulnerable — are what strengthen them.

If you have some relationships you’d like to strengthen, Nelson recommends starting with a post-it note and writing down the names of those you don’t want to drift away from.

Focus on developing deep relationships with just a few people instead of casting a wide net. And prioritise spending time with those people: schedule a fun activity with them every week that you both can look forward to, and let the post-it note serve as a reminder to send them a quick text or check up on them.

“We often believe that we just need to look for friends, but friends aren’t found, they’re made,” says Nelson.

Insider’s takeaway

Friendships play an integral role in your mental and physical wellbeing. Sometimes it’s easy to prioritise family, romance, and work over friendships. However, if you’re willing to be vulnerable and consistently work on strengthening your friendships, you can lead a happier and healthier life.

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