What makes a good friend and how it can make you live longer
Good friendship, like a healthy lifestyle, is being credited with improving your longevity potential, says Arlene Harris
Everyone knows that the key to living into a ripe old age is to have a healthy lifestyle and plenty of exercise. But a new report has revealed that when it comes to longevity in life, you cannot underestimate the power of good friendship.
And before people start heralding the vast number of 'friends' they have on social media, let me be clear that this research refers only to the good old-fashioned kind of mate that you actually see, have a laugh with, share a cup of tea (or something stronger) offload your problems and, generally, have a close relationship with.
In the mountains of Sardinia, some of Europe's oldest residents can be found enjoying life well after their 100th birthdays and psychologists have concurred that, while it was originally thought their stamina was down to climate and surroundings, a sense of belonging and community spirit is likely to be part of the equation.
Psychologist Susan Pinker has just published a book on the subject entitled The Village Effect and we asked some Irish women and experts what their thoughts on the matter are.
Anna lives in Cabinteely with her husband Ben and children Callum (11), Ava (8) and Daniel (5). She runs her own business - www.zooki.ie - making shopping trolley seat covers and says she wholeheartedly agrees that friendship is one of the most important aspects of her life.
"Between my mum, my sisters, sister-in-laws and girlfriends, I have an amazing network of strong and supportive women surrounding me, who I can turn to in times of worry or distress.
"They make me laugh (and cry); there are women for exercising with; women for sharing a coffee with; women who can offer amazing advice even without knowing that they are doing it and I love sharing all of the good times and celebrations with these ladies.
"I think that companionship is fundamental in ensuring a person is well-rounded.
"What I truly love about my circle of women friends is that the majority of the time, you always have someone in your corner.
"Even when you screw up and make dreadful decisions, your girlfriends will tell you that everything will be ok and will be there to rub your back and give you a cuddle, coffee or glass of wine.
"I always feel better having shared some time with my girls. Apart from my family, I am still very close to some women that I have known since I was four.
"When I started my business, the support I received from my friends was amazing. I also found that women in business, for the most part are hugely supportive.
"They love to share their experiences, both good and bad, in an attempt to protect or guide you in the right direction.
"I definitely feel that, personally, I have dealt with any issues throughout my life with the help and advice from my friends. Sometimes you know you are only getting the answer that you want because they love you, but on the whole, the advice is both objective and meaningful. "True friends are people who don't run at the first sign of a problem and are with you through thick and thin, and keep you laughing along the way."
Deirdre Mac Cormaic
Deirdre is married to Cormac and has two children, Sadhbh (6) and Aidan (1). They live in Knocklyon, where the mother-of-two (with another on the way) has recently set up her own business - www.mrssewandsew.ie - making memory bears from Babygro's and keepsakes from wedding dresses. She also agrees that good friends are essential for sharing both the good times and the bad.
"I totally agree that having good friends is more beneficial than a diet or exercise plan. They are priceless.
"I'm lucky enough to have a handful of really close friends. They don't necessarily know each other, but without each of them I'd be lost.
"I don't fully understand what draws me to these specific people but it could be because we share the same sense of humour and that their outlook on life is similar to mine.
"With all my close friends there's a comfortableness with each other and a love of fun.
"The ups and downs that life brings to each of us can be very trying, and sometimes, you need to speak to someone who you are close with, but not necessarily related to - especially when that person has an insight into your past, your character and a perspective on your life as a whole.
"My definition of a good friend is someone who is trustworthy, respectful and understanding. They can be a constant presence or someone who you don't see for years, but the connection is never lost. I really believe that a good friend is a blessing who should be treasured."
The expert view
Psychologist Sean Flanagan says we are programmed to interact with each other and, therefore, will thrive both emotionally and physically in the presence of good friends. But he believes having a healthy lifestyle is just as important as a strong network of friends.
"Humans are, by our nature, social creatures," he says. "It is a trait that has evolved with us over approximately 200,000 years and being sociable ensured that our ancestors survived against the elements and predators through cooperation and sharing of food and shelter.
"So the need for social connectivity is thus hard-wired in our DNA.
"Naturally enough, the stronger one's social connections, the more secure they are likely to feel.
"Put simply, strong friendships make us feel good. By the same token, losing friendships, or even the threat of losing friendships, can cause a great deal of distress. In terms of our health, strong friendships make us feel good, thus reducing stress.
"Similarly, if a friendship is in trouble, or has ended, it can actually cause stress, which can have adverse effects on people's physical health.
"That said, I wouldn't consider having good friends more important than having a healthy lifestyle. In many ways, it's like comparing apples with oranges.
"A person with an unhealthy lifestyle and lots of good friends is likely to have just as many problems as a person with a healthy lifestyle and no pals. They will just have different problems."
However, Flanagan says secure friendships are very important for emotional wellbeing and mental health and should be encouraged from an early age.
"Irish schools are placing an increasing emphasis on mental health issues, noticing perhaps the implications such concerns can have for learning," he says.
Thelma and Louise
"Programmes such as Zippy's Friends and FRIENDS for Life are being incorporated into the SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) Curriculum, in order to improve children's coping skills and resilience, and their ability to make friends. The ability to make friends is a bit of a lost art.
"There are a growing number of young people in modern society whose idea of 'making friends' is to send a friend request.
"As our society has become more reliant on tablets, smartphones, and games consoles, our children are at an increasing risk of not properly developing adequate social skills, which in turn can lead to social isolation (even if they have hundreds of friends on Facebook).
"It underlines the importance of extra-curricular activities for young children, whether it be sport, scouts, music groups - anything that gets them out mixing.
"As adults, in the real world, strong friendships help us to cope with the stresses of work, family life, financial difficulties etc.
"The importance of a support network cannot be underestimated, whether that includes friends, family or both. Think of the last time you had a good laugh (or a cry) with a friend - a night out or coffee with friends or a run with your mate.
"These make us feel good for a variety of reasons. Similarly, the support of a good friend when times get tough can be invaluable. "
The experienced psychologist says while some studies show it is better to talk to friends about problems than to an expert, this all depends on the people involved.
"Some friends can exacerbate problems and make things worse," he says.
"However, a friend who is good at listening, who can empathise, who can troubleshoot effectively, and who can make you laugh and smile, IS just as good as any counselling session."
Common signs of a good friend
• Someone who will support you, no matter what
• Who you can trust and who won't judge you
• Someone who won't put you down or deliberately hurt your feelings
• Who is kind and has respect for you
• Someone who will love you because they choose to, not because they feel like they should
• Someone whose company you enjoy and who shows you loyalty
• Someone who is trustworthy and willing to tell you the truth, even when it's hard
• Someone who can laugh when you do
• Who is willing to stick around when things get tough
• Someone who makes you smile and who will cry when you cry
• Someone who is there to listen