The power of friendship

Advice articles
The power of friendship

Why and how do people live wonderfully long, engaged and rich lives in the homes and communities they love? How important are factors such as wealth, high achievement, low cholesterol, exercise, social status and class?

These are the questions that led Arvida Good Friends on a journey to find two inspirational studies, ‘The Blue Zones’ by Dan Beuttner (with the help of National Geographic), and ‘The Study of Adult Development’ by researchers at Harvard. The findings and insights from these studies are surprising and obvious, reassuring and thought provoking, and often overlooked yet warmly embraced by many.

The Blue Zones – the benefits of keeping good friends

The Blue Zones study identified locations around the world where people regularly live vibrant and healthy lives past the age of 100.

As you’d expect, diet and exercise play a very significant part; however, the study looked beyond nutrition and activity to examine the influence and effect of social and cultural constructs on longevity. It turns out that family, community and friendship are common to all Blue Zones.

The sense and creation of community and friendship are perhaps seen at their greatest in the southern Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The Okinawan community and culture are built on strong social support networks, called Moais (pronounced mo-ais). A Moai is a lifelong circle of friends that support each other through all of life’s ups and downs, well into older age. The Moai also innately reinforces healthy behaviours through shared experience. People who live in this community have low rates of cancer, heart disease and dementia. The women of this community are the longest living on the planet. Clearly getting older with friends and making friends in older age are important, because friendship is good for your health.

Thanks to the formation of Moais, people living in Okinawa will travel through life with between five and six good friends. In Western societies that number is between one-and-a-half and three.

“It is the stress-shedding power and influence of friendships over our day-to-day lives that adds years to life and life to years,” explains Dan Beuttner.

The Study of Adult Development - social connections and wellbeing

The Study of Adult Development , conducted by researchers at Harvard, is a longitudinal study that’s been following two groups of men over the last 75 years. The purpose of the study is to better understand and identify predictors of healthy ageing. It’s one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history.

Like The Blue Zones, the study has looked beyond the more ‘clinical’ aspects of healthy ageing. It focused on monitoring and measuring the physical and emotional wellbeing of two distinctly different populations based on their societal class: 456 men from some of the most disadvantaged families and areas in Boston and 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944.

The Harvard director of the study, Robert Waldinger, presented a TED Talk titled ‘What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness’. In his TED Talk we find more proof of the power of friendships or – to be more precise – the ‘quality of relationships’.

The study finds that social connections are really good for us. People who are more socially connected to family, friends and the community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected.

Having someone or a group of people to rely on helps the nervous system to relax and the brain to stay healthier for longer, and it reduces emotional and physical pain. The study also clearly showed that people who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.

In the words of Robert Waldinger:

“Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. The people in our 75-year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. Many of our men, when they were starting out as young adults, really believed that fame, wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships with family, with friends, with [the] community.”

Ageing at home – how social connections keep older adults healthy

The importance of social connections for older adults, friendship and community engagement are now starting to be better understood in relation to home care. This is important as the vast majority of New Zealanders want to age at home , in their communities, connected to the friends and family they love for as long as possible.

These are critical things to think about as we grow older. Starting simple services in the home that maintain your Moai, keep you connected to your community and engaged with people makes a difference to the quality and longevity of life.

For more information, call the Good Friends team on 0800 204 120.