If you want to live a longer, healthier life, you could exercise more. You could lose a little weight. You could eat better.

Or -- actually better yet, and -- you could build a few closer friendships.

While family bonds are obviously important, research shows that friends can affect your health even more than family. The 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that close relationships with children and other relatives had very little impact on how long you live, but people with the most friends tended to outlive those with the fewest by 22 percent.

Better yet, a clinical review of nearly 150 studies found that people with strong social ties had a 50 percent better chance of survival, regardless of age, sex, health status, and cause of death, than those with weaker ties. (The conclusion was based on information about more than 300,000 individuals who were followed for an average of 7.5 years.)

In fact, according to the researchers, the health risk of having few friends was similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more dangerous than being obese or not exercising in terms of decreasing your lifespan.

Keep in mind that means real friends. 

How do you know whether a friend is a real friend? Try this: Make a list of friends. Then think about whether the people you jotted down would include you on their lists of friends. 

(And of course that also means that only about half the time do you consider someone who thinks of you as a friend to be your friend.)

Why? There are lots of possible reasons. One is that your definition of "friend" may differ from other people's. 

And regardless of how you define "friend," according to Robin Dunbar you don't have the time to have dozens of friends.

Because of that, Dunbar feels we have different layers, or slices, of friends: One or two truly best friends (like your significant other and maybe one other person), then maybe 10 people with whom we have "great affinity" and interact with frequently, and then all sorts of other people we're friendly with but who aren't actually friends.

In total, Dunbar's Number says you can have about 150 people in your social sphere.

All of which means "friendly" and "friend" have two very different meanings. 

And that means, if Dunbar is correct, that you can only have a handful of true friends. That means some people you think of a close friends... don't see you that way at all.

So why -- apart from making you and I wonder how other people really feel about us -- does this matter?

Superficial, distant, and less than meaningful relationships can lead to feelings of insecurity and loneliness, which can increase your risk of illness and death just as much as obesity, alcoholism, and smoking.  

That means the key isn't to have more friends. The key isn't to try to have a tons of friends.

The key is to have three or four really, really good friends... and then, of course, plenty of people who aren't necessarily friends but are fun to be around, or result in a mutually beneficial relationship, or share common interests.

You don't need to be less friendly. You just need to nurture the most important relationships in your life.

What's the easiest way to do that?

Think about what you can do that will help the people closest to you be happier, and then do it.

You care about your casual friends, but with casual friends, "care" is a noun.

Real friends see "care" as a verb. They act on their feelings. They step in, step up, and sometimes step outside their comfort zone to do something selfless, just because they can.

If you want to have closer friends, make "care" a verb.

Support them.

Encourage them.

Help them. 

And if you don't know how you can support, encourage, or help someone you care about, just ask. 

Because real friends don't wait. Real friends ask.

Published on: Nov 23, 2018
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