Would Your Friends Pass the Friendship Test?

Mamta Gautam, MD

Your Health Could be Dramatically Improved

If you have good friendships, chances are you will be healthier. A significant body of scientific research supports the health benefits of friendships.

For example...

People who have a supportive network of family and friends have less incidence of cardiac disease, as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate, according to studies conducted at the University of Chicago and the University of California at Irvine.

Social ties are even associated with a lower likelihood of premature death, based on the findings of a Yale University researcher who followed the death rate of 10,000 older adults over a five-year period. This could be because people who have social ties typically feel supported, cared for and valued. They tend to believe that their lives have more meaning, and choose to make the effort to remain healthy.

Friends also help us cope. A landmark study at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that women respond to stress by "tending and befriending." When females experience stress, a cascade of chemicals is released within their bodies, including the hormones oxytocin and estrogen - both of which compel women to bond. The increased oxytocin level suppresses the hormone cortisol, resulting in lower levels of anxiety and a sense of calm.

Friendships between women usually are based on a feeling of emotional closeness and attachment. Most women welcome the opportunity to share feelings, thoughts and experiences and devote a great deal of time and energy to such relationships.

Friendships between men are typically quite different. A great deal of research on male friendship focuses on what are known as "activity friends"-those with whom men play sports, watch television or have a drink ... "convenience friends" with whom favors can be exchanged ... and "mentor friends" in which one man who has more experience and skills helps out another. In general, men's friendships focus less on communication and more on activities and companionship.

Being friends during good times is easy. What happens when there is a falling out? While it can be hard to express negative feelings of hurt or disappointment, that is exactly what we need to do. At times, we allow a friend to drift away rather than risk experiencing any conflict. A good friendship is worth the energy and risk. It takes faith to realize that a conflict is not going to break a friendship, and may actually strengthen it.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD FRIEND? Relationship experts Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University have created a list of traits to look for in enduring friendships.

A good friend is someone who...

1. Makes time. Whether you're in the midst of a crisis or slogging through the mundane, a friend will have time for you.

2. Keeps a secret. Trust allows you to feel emotionally safe, share feelings and explore and understand what may be bothering you.

3. Cares deeply. The ability to enter your world and feel your pain is a cornerstone of friendship.

4. Provides space. Friends will give you time alone and are there when you need them.

5. Speaks the truth. This person asks the questions you want to ignore and helps you face reality.

6. Forgives faults. Everyone has faults. A friend knows you and likes you anyway!

7. Remains faithful. You will not be deserted during bad times.

8. Laughs easily. We all enjoy the company of people who share our sense of humor.

9. Celebrates your success. Ideally, there's no jealousy, resentment or destructive competition between friends.

10. Connects strongly. Whether it's bridge, books or real estate, friends share common interests.

It's more productive to work on being a good friend, rather than to look for a good friend. Legendary self-improvement expert Dale Carnegie advised that people can make more friends in two months by simply becoming interested in other people than they can make in two years by trying to get people interested in them.

To be a good friend: Think of someone who means a lot to you, and show that person you care by contacting him/her. Schedule regular activities together, such as golf games, bike rides or lunch. If the person does not live close by, plan to meet soon, and stay connected via regular phone calls or E-mails.

Once you initiate contact, use the "Tarzan Rule"-just as Tarzan never lets go of one vine unless he's got another one at hand, do not end a contact with your friend without booking one more. Your friends may very well help keep you healthy-even keep you alive.