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Good Friends Are Good for You

They might get on your nerves at times, but good friends have bigger benefits than you may realize.

Friends Can Be Stressful

Friends can be a source of stress, though. In fact, friends can cause more stress than others precisely because we care so much about them.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, has found that dealing with people who arouse conflicted feelings in us can raise blood pressure more than dealing with people we don't like.

"My colleagues and I were interested in relationships that contain a mix of positivity and negativity," she says. "For example, you might love your mother very much, but still find her overbearing or critical at times."

By attaching people to portable blood pressure monitors, Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues found that blood pressure was highest when people were interacting with someone they felt ambivalent about.

What she found really surprising was that these interactions caused higher blood pressure than those with people the research subjects felt completely negative about. "We suspect that people we feel positive toward can hurt us that much more when they make a snide comment or don't come through for us because they are important to us. Friends may help us cope with stress, but they also may create stress."

So would we be better off having no friends at all?

Hardly. "One thing research shows is that as one's social network gets smaller, one's risk for mortality increases," Holt-Lunstad says. "And it's a strong correlation -- almost as strong as the correlation between smoking and mortality."

The Impact of Loneliness

What about loners? Are they at greater risk of dying because they prefer to be alone?

Only if they feel lonely. One study found that drug use among young people was higher among those who said they were lonely. Older lonely people tended to have higher blood pressure and poorer sleep quality. They also were more tense and anxious.

Another study found that college freshmen who had small social networks and claimed to be lonely had weaker immune responses to flu vaccinations. They also had higher levels of stress hormones in their blood.

Unfortunately, Americans have fewer friends than they used to, according to a recent study, "Social Isolation in America," published in the American Sociological Review. The authors found that from 1985 to 2004, the number of Americans who feel they have someone with whom they can discuss important matters dropped by nearly one-third. The number of people who said they had no one they could discuss such matters with tripled to nearly 25%. The authors suspect that long work hours and the popularity of the Internet may contribute to the decline in close relationships.

The study also found that the percentage of people who talk about important matters only to family members increased from 57% to 80%. Those who depend solely on their spouse for these talks increased from 5% to 9%.

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