Friends with Benefits

by | Dec 3, 2018


Met a man on the roadside crying,
Without a friend, there’s no denying
You’re incomplete, they’ll be no finding
Looking for what you knew.

-Led Zeppelin “Friends” from the (under-rated) album Led Zeppelin III

Nearly all of the advice related to living longer and healthier relates to physical factors, such as: exercise regularly, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, get enough sleep, etc. Good advice.

A usually overlooked area with big mortality effects is our social connections. A recent Harvard study found that having few or no friends was more dangerous to our health than being obese and on par with smoking. Similarly, a A study out of BYU found that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.”

Why might having friends and stronger social connections reduce mortality?

The Harvard study noted above found that social isolation triggers “fight or flight” stress signals which also increases levels of protein fibrinogen in anticipation of injury and blood loss. Higher fibrinogen levels are associated with heart disease and stroke. The study found: “a greater number of incoming friendship and familial ties predicts significantly lower levels of fibrinogen.”

Similarly, a study from University of Chicago and University of California found that the fight or flight response triggered by loneliness affected the production of white blood cells and the inflammation response. “Essentially, lonely people had a less effective immune response and more inflammation than non-lonely people” which resulted in increased mortality risk.

Having meaningful friendships is a concern in modern society as paradoxically we have more connections through social media, but as a society we’ve been becoming more socially isolated in ways that count. From the BYU Study:

Current evidence also indicates that the quantity and/or quality of social relationships in industrialized societies are decreasing. For instance, trends reveal reduced inter-generational living, greater social mobility, delayed marriage, dual-career families, increased single-residence households, and increased age-related disabilities. More specifically, over the last two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who report having no confidant—now the modal response. Such findings suggest that despite increases in technology and globalization that would presumably foster social connections, people are becoming increasingly more socially isolated.

Studies have found that it’s not just the quantity of friendships that matter but also the quality. The BYU researchers found that it is the complexity of social relationships matter more than the quantity of relationships. Other research has found that quality of friendships is more determinant of life satisfaction than quantity of friends.


  1. I would contend (suspect) the advent of the cell phone and social media has caused a reduction in the quality of our friendships. You may have linked with a hundred or more friends on Face Book but how many of them are friends beyond the stuff they post. Friends use to be people you personally interacted with frequently (had over to your house to play cards for instance). Todays friends are to often simple aquatints we read about on Face Book. Not the same thing.

  2. Timely observation for our times. So important.
    Equally important, spot on about Led Zeppelin III.


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