One of the more surprising findings in the science of relationships is that both romance and friendship often start the same way — with a spark.
But, what happens next? Often, we place our romantic partners above all else and ask our friends to wait in the wings, say relationship experts. Yet, a growing body of research shows friends are essential to a healthy life — and they are just as important for our well-being as healthy eating habits or a good night’s sleep.
“We’ve always had this hierarchy of love with romantic love at the top and friendship seen as second class,” said Marisa G. Franco, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends.” “We are constantly fed the message that the romantic relationship is the only one that matters.”
But platonic love trumps romantic love in a number of ways. People with strong friendships tend to have better mental health and studies suggest they’re in better physical health, as well. Researchers have found large social networks lower our risk of premature death more than exercise or dieting alone.
A six-year study of 736 middle-aged Swedish men found having a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease — but having friends did.
A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a lot of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with few friends. Notably, having a social network of children and relatives did not affect survival rates.
“We need an entire community to feel whole,” Franco said. “Being around different people brings out different sides of our own identity.
Why friends are good for our health
There are multiple theories about the association between friendship and better health. Part of the effect may be due to the fact that it’s easier for healthy people to make friends. A strong social network could be an indicator that someone has more access to medical care. And, someone with more friends may just have a better support system to get a ride to the doctor’s office.
But there is also a psychological effect of friendship that likely plays a role. Friends help us cope with stress. In one study at the University of Virginia, many people were intimidated by the prospect of climbing a steep hill. But researchers found that when people were standing next to a friend, they rated the hill less challenging than those who were alone.
Brain imaging studies suggest that friendship affects brain systems associated with reward, stress, and negative emotions, offering an explanation for why social connection benefits mental health and well-being.
Friendship even seems to affect our immune response. In one remarkable study, 276 healthy volunteers were given nose drops containing a cold virus. Those with diverse social ties were less likely to develop cold symptoms.
Franco notes that the term “platonic love” was originally intended to reflect Plato’s vision of love “so powerful it transcended the physical.”