Substantial research suggests being with friends makes you live longer than exercise or a healthy diet. Guys, you might not want to lay hands on your friend’s face, but the principle goes for you too!

‘A friend is someone who’s there for you when he’d rather be somewhere else’

— Anonymous

THEY SAY THAT FRIENDS ARE God’s way of apologising for our families. They may well be right. Rare is the soul who enjoys life without friends. They help us, they pull us out of ourselves and bring us new perspectives. The very act of sharing life’s stresses with them nearly always makes us feel better.

Now research is discovering further benefits: friends not only make us feel good, but close relationships and regular social interaction appear to have more positive impact on our lifespan than exercise and a healthy diet! Take a look at the TED Talk below, a presentation by developmental psychologist Susan Pinker.

There’s a lot of medical research to support what Susan Pinker found. An American study1 of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. A six-year analysis2 of more than 700 middle-aged Swedish men suggested a good social network was far more important for their heart health than a life partner. And an Australian study3  lasting 10 years found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die during that period than those with fewer friends.

But while we relish the company and support our friends bring, are we ourselves as good a friend back to them as we’d like to think? How can one be a fabulous friend?

It all boils down to that age-old principle, says Cape Town occupational therapist and counsellor Karin Tilney, who has more than 25 years’ counselling experience under her belt:

‘Treat your friends as you yourself would like to be treated’

But what does that really mean? Read Karin’s tips for becoming the kind of friend you’d really like to be.

How WOULD we like to be treated?

  1. Listening and empathy are two of the most powerful tools in friendship. Be a genuine listener, not an interrupter, and acknowledge your friend’s feelings. Empathy means saying, ‘I understand you’re feeling disappointed about not getting the job’. Lack of empathy is saying, ‘It’s not that bad. Think about the jobless all around us and move on!’ A friend who’s dealing with loss of any kind would love to move on but needs time to process things and forgive (and forgiveness is one of the hardest processes of all)
  2. It sounds pretty obvious but actually connecting with your friends is vital for maintaining friendships! Some men can find this harder, but they can persuade their friends to join them in anything as diverse as a cycling group, wine club or Rotary, and of course there’s always that very important social event: Watching Sport. In particular, celebrate birthdays. You don’t need lots of money. Take the initiative as the day approaches and suggest a birthday walk/run/breakfast. If you live far apart, call, email or message. Start up or increase contact, and you’ll probably find you enjoy it!
  3. Keep it confidential! Resist the urge to talk about friends’ struggles, however concerned you are
  4. Be reliable and flexible. If a friend’s going through a difficult time, be ready to drop other commitments to support them at their time of need. Be flexible on the little things too, such as choices of outings or movies
  5. Speak the truth in love. If you don’t, who will? It’s hard but if there’s an issue at stake you sometimes need to GENTLY say how you feel about it. Try: ‘I know why you’re getting worked up about your mother-in-law refusing to babysit, but I notice that she isn’t as fit as she used to be.’ If you’re told not to interfere, don’t make a thing of it – your friend heard you and she will be thinking about it. Make yourself available to pick up the slack next time she needs a sitter!
  6. Get practical: take friends a meal when they’re ill, sort out their broken gate, give their children a lift. And when it’s needed, a good friend simply goes to a mate’s house and makes them a cup of tea or coffee!
1Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis (Candyce Kroenke)
2Lack of social support and incidence of coronary heart disease in middle-aged Swedish men (K Orth-Gomér)
3Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians (Lynne C Giles)
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