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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.

The Health Benefits of Good Friends continued...

Other studies have shown that people with fewer friends tend to die sooner after having a heart attack than people with a strong social network. Having lots of friends may even reduce your chances of catching a cold. That's true even though you're probably exposed to more viruses if you spend a lot of time with others.

"People with social support have fewer cardiovascular problems and immune problems, and lower levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone," says Tasha R. Howe, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University. "Why? The evolutionary argument maintains that humans are social animals, and we have evolved to be in groups. We have always needed others for our survival. It's in our genes. Therefore, people with social connections feel more relaxed and at peace, which is related to better health."

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."

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