Good Friends, Good Health

As we go through life, friendships can sometimes fall by the wayside - when we're going through busy times, for example, or when we move house.

But the good news is that it's never too late to rekindle old friendships or make new ones - and research shows it can pay divideneds for our health. ‘Friendships have amazing benefits, often even better than a family can give,’ says Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and columnist for The Telegraph. ‘Yes, family will often be supportive, but the baggage associated with family relationships can bring you down. A good friend (and it doesn’t have to be a long-term friendship, just someone you trust) can be as good for your health, state of mind and longevity as a good diet and exercise. ‘Human beings are social animals. It’s important to us to be part of a group to feel safe through social support – it’s very much in our DNA.

When we feel alone or isolated, we get frightened. When we have people around us, we feel more relaxed and our happy chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, kick in. Also, if we’re physically touched, with a hug for example, it releases feel-good oxytocin.’s we go through life, friendships can sometimes fall by the wayside – when we’re going through busy times, for example, or when we move house. But the good news is that it’s never too late to rekindle old friendships or make new ones – and research shows it can pay dividends for our health.

How many friends do you need to stay happy?

‘That depends on your personality,’ says Linda. ‘You know what makes you happy and comfortable. If you’re an extrovert, you probably enjoy going out and meeting up in groups. If you’re an introvert, you probably avoid crowds – a small handful of friends is all you need. You may see friends one at a time – that’s fine, as long as you get the support you need. But because we’re social creatures, it may give you a lift to get out and feel the buzz of having people around you, such as visiting a café, joining a class or reading group, or going to a shopping centre. ‘Retirement developments are a good idea,’ adds Linda. ‘If you can live with a group of like-minded people, that’s great for support. However, it’s also good to get out into the wider community to meet people of all ages to keep you stimulated.’

Staying in touch

We often lose touch with friends as we progress through life – for instance, after a divorce or moving to a new area. As we get older, we may lose a partner and close friends, which can leave us feeling isolated and lonely. But there are things you can do. If you haven’t seen a group of old workmates or school friends for a while, why not organise a reunion? Facebook is a great way to keep communication lines open for groups of friends, and to join local and national groups and communities. ‘Texting, email, Facebook or messaging services, such as WhatsApp, are fine for initial contact and to stay in touch, but do follow up with a phone call or by meeting up in person,’ says Linda. If you’re not tech-savvy, there’s loads of help out there. Age UK runs computer training courses nationwide (call 0800 169 6565 or visit ageuk.org.uk), or ask a friend, relative or your local library for help. ‘But social media won’t stop you feeling lonely,’ says Linda. ‘Seeing someone’s face and hearing their voice is important, so try a Skype chat or phone call and then arrange to meet up, if you can. Our brain doesn’t recognise texts or emails as people being nearby. We need proximity – to hear their voice, smell them or feel a loving touch – to benefit from those feel-good hormones.

‘The internet is great in many ways. However, research is showing that 30-somethings are the loneliest generation, because of their over-reliance on social media for “socialising”. It’s best to use text and email for passing on information, rather than for emotional comfort,’ adds Linda.

Health and Wellbeing is incredibly important, particularly post retirement. We have written a number of useful guides to help you stay fit and healthy.