How Friendship Makes You Healthier
Those teenager years can be a tricky social landscape.
Some of you may have ended up hating high school, the people there, and the town you grew up in. Others of you may still have best friends from childhood, breezed through classes, and ended up being king or queen at the prom.
People can walk away with a lot of different experiences from high school. You see the stereotypes portrayed plenty in TV shows and movies. The jocks, the nerds, the popular kids, and the misfits.
I’ve heard from people before that high school doesn’t matter. It’s what comes after that really counts.
However, a study published in Psychological Science says that your experiences in adolescence do make a difference. That friendships can affect your health a decade later down the road.
Cool Kid or Outcast?
It might be hard to imagine how much friendships can influence you years into the future. Especially when it can affect something as profound as your health.
The team of researchers, led by Joseph Allen from University of Virginia, used data from a multiple year study dealing with the effects of peer relationships.
It included 171 individuals that were assessed every year for five years. From the ages of 13 to 17. Each year these adolescents reported the name of their closest friend. The person that was named was then surveyed as well.
The friend, however, was asked a slightly different set of questions. They were quizzed on what they thought the quality of the relationship was. Then they were asked 5 more questions on how well that participant “fit in”. If that individual conformed with the rest of the group.
That wasn’t the end of the study, though. The individuals were contacted again, about 8 years later at the age of 25.
For that year and the two following years they gave an extensive report on their mental and physical health.
At the end of the third year and final report, the scientists took a look at the data and analyzed it. Here’s what they found.
The quality of their close friendships could strongly predict health outcomes 10 years later. This perhaps wasn’t the most interesting finding though. The researchers also found that the willingness to conform to the rest of the group also predicted health outcomes.
Specifically, the scientists pointed to behavior such as: acting with lower assertiveness, following instead of leading, and being influenced by peers.
Better health was attributed to decreased levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms in adulthood.
Allen, a scientist on the study, concluded this from the research
“From a risk and prevention perspective, difficulty forming close relationships early in adolescence may now be considered a marker of risk for long-term health difficulties.”
Walking the Line
The research brings up an interesting debate. It can be good to fit in, but at what point do you break away from the group to be your own person? Sometimes the cost of conforming to a group can have a negative impact both academically and behaviorally.
As the research shows, not conforming can risk isolation and stress that can physically affect your health in years to come. Those teen years are also the first steps towards becoming an adult and discovering who you really are. Discovering your unique talents and interests, which may not always be the same as the friends you run around with.
It’s a fine line to walk. As if the teenage years weren’t already tough enough for kids.
It has implications for parenting as well.
The researchers say that parents need to understand:
“…the challenge that adolescents face in balancing the costs and benefits of seeking autonomy vs. acquiescing to peer influence.”
Social isolation can take it’s toll, and maybe more so when teens are at a critical stage in development. While it might sound weird to give up one’s individuality, the researchers comment that it’s not all bad:
“an approach to social interactions that emphasizes placing the desires of one’s peers ahead of one’s own goals, much as adolescents do when they conform to peer norms, is linked to reduce life stress.”
Benefits of Friendship
So being connected with others is not just an important aspect of mental health, but also your physical health.
This isn’t the only study to show these benefits. Other research has shown how friendship can benefit your well-being. It can even increase your resilience against stress when life decides to throw you a curve ball. Or help you speed along recovery from depression. Those mental benefits also carry physical health outcomes.
Conforming to the group isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re a parent, you may not have to worry as much just who their friends are. As long as they have quality friendships.
Just be careful that the behaviors they conform to don’t have lasting negative effects for their future.
Image: Beatrice Murch