Friendships are foundational to our lives. In addition to influencing us, exposing us to new things, and lifting us up when we feel down, friendships shape our perspectives and determine how we interact with the world. So, it’s no wonder that they have such a large effect on our physical and mental health.
According to MentalHeath.org, “Our friendships are among the most valuable relationships we have. We gain in various ways from different friendships. We may talk to friends in confidence about things we wouldn’t discuss with our families. Our friends keep us going.”
Because friendships and other social interactions play such a critical role in our overall health and wellbeing, it’s essential for people who want to age well to pay attention to the social environments they participate in daily.
Our Primary Social Environments
While our largest social environment is our friendships, additional social environments include our families, work environments, communities, and even our online circles. For us to be our happiest, healthiest selves, these various social circles need to be supportive, uplifting, and positive.
If one or several of them fall short of that mark, it’s easy to suffer significant emotional and mental setbacks, especially as we age.
What are the Benefits of Positive Social Environments?
To put it simply: good social environments are good for human health. By preventing loneliness, encouraging new outlooks, providing companionship, and offering a much-needed break from the struggles and stressors of life, friendships and social relationships do the following things:
- Enhance your sense of purpose
- Boost happiness and increase feelings of self-worth
- Reduce stress
- Help you cope with sadness, trauma, hardship, and stress
- Encourage healthy lifestyle adaptations, such as attending fitness classes and eating a healthy diet
- Expand social, cultural, or political views for a broader and more satisfying experience
Why Some People Have a Hard Time Maintaining Social Relationships
While friendships and social relationships are critical to our health, they’re not always easy to nurture and maintain. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to have a difficult time creating and maintaining social relationships. The reasons for this are many.
As we grow and age, friendships can start to take a back seat to things like raising children, pursuing more complex job positions, and caring for aging friends or family members. In some cases, people grow apart due to geographical distances or changes in outlook or priorities.
Whatever the case may be, maintaining social relationships takes effort, and people who are successful at it are the ones who are willing to put in the work and attention it requires.
How Many Friends is Enough Friends?
When it comes to friendships, quality is more important than quantity. While some people may think that having more friends is naturally a better option, science refutes this. According to research conducted by Robin Dunbar, an England-based evolutionary anthropologist, people only have room (mentally, socially, and emotionally) for approximately 150 relationships in life.
While this isn’t to state that every person needs 150 friends to be happy, it does prove that our capacity for friendship and connection is limited, and that we’re not actually capable of maintaining close, satisfying relationships with an infinite number of people.
For adults, only having 2-3 close friends is very typical, and it’s not a sign of an unhealthy social life. So long as you feel supported, loved, and seen when you reach out to your social circle, it’s more than large enough to support your needs.
How to Keep the Social Environment Healthy: 5 Tips
Just like vibrant and productive gardens need maintenance and care, our social environments need ongoing attention to stay happy and healthy. Here’s how you can facilitate this in your life:
1. Meet New People on a Regular Basis
Once you feel at peace with your social environment, it’s easy to stop trying to expand it. Meeting new people expand our tribe and keeps us on our toes, though, so it’s critical to keep doing it. Whether you pursue volunteer opportunities or look for new friendships through classes, events, or mutual acquaintances, meeting new people is good for the heart and the mind.
2. Take Stock of Your Existing Friendships Several Times a Year
Friendships are fluid things, and they can change dramatically over the course of a year or so. To ensure the associations you’re maintaining are the ones that are increasing your happiness and contributing to your enjoyment of life, take stock of your relationships on a regular basis. Are they uplifting and helpful or draining and negative? Keep the former and weed out the latter.
3. Make an Effort
Without regular effort, friendships wilt and die. While life gets busy quite quickly, it’s critical to make time for your friendships. Even if it’s just a quick coffee date each week, or a scheduled dinner once a month, penciling in time to spend with the people you enjoy most will go a long way toward helping to keep those friendships safe, happy, positive, and strong for years to come.
4. Be Honest With Yourself
It’s not uncommon to stay in a friendship or other relationship because you feel a sense of obligation, or because there’s no “real” cause for the friendship to end, like a fight or betrayal. Unfortunately, this outlook won’t do anything but harm your health and wellbeing when it comes to your friendships.
Instead, learn to be honest with yourself about how other people make you feel. If you feel happy and uplifted when you’re around someone, it’s probably wise to keep them in your life. If someone makes you feel ridiculed, small, or insecure, though, you’re better off being honest about it and letting that person go.
5. Learn New Things
By taking classes, joining new communities, and pursuing new interests, you can continuously expand your social circles and keep them fresh and interesting. This will enhance your health and wellbeing while also solidifying your new and existing friendships.
What’s more, research has shown that learning new things has neuroprotective effects, and can protect the brain from Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, so you’ll be doing something for your heart and your mind at the same time!
Our Social Environments Determine the Course of Our Lives
While most people understand that social environments are critical, few know just how instrumental they are to our health, happiness, and well-being.
When our social environments are stable, supportive, and resilient, they support our health and wellness on all levels. When they’re not, it’s easy for our mental health and wellbeing to decline, as a result.
With this in mind, focus carefully on your social environments to increase your chances of aging happily and healthily. As some of the most essential relationships in our lives, our friendships have a dramatic effect on our outlook and health both now and in the future.