It’s nice to have friends. It makes you feel good about yourself, you have someone to do stuff with, and you have a source of ongoing support. Friends are great, there’s no doubt about that, but is it more than that? Recent research says yes. In fact, findings show that friendship between men can actually improve their physiological health as well as their mental well-being. For one thing, a good ‘bromance’ can help to reduce stress – and stress is a known factor in many physiological issues, including cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. But what exactly is it about friendship that is so great? And are men able to create strong enough bonds for friendship to show its true benefits?
A study recently published in Neuropsychopharmacology journal claims that men who are close to other men have higher levels of oxytocin in their brains – a chemical often referred to as ‘the cuddle hormone’. It’s this hormone that makes people better at handling stress and it’s this, research claims, that helps to improve men’s physical health.
The study, conducted by Elizabeth Kirby of Stanford University, put male rats into mildly stressful situations – namely that of being stuck in a confined space for around three hours. Those rats who had previously had ‘friends’ (i.e. those which had been in cages together for one week previously in order for them to bond) showed higher levels of oxytocin, the anti-stress hormone, than those rats without friends. What’s more, the study showed that being placed under stressful situations made the rats more likely to be social and co-operative, as those who returned to their ‘friends’ touched each other more, huddled together more, and generally helped each other overcome their difficult situations.
This is not the only research to suggest that friendship is good for men’s health either. In fact, there is a wealth of research in this area and it all points in one clear direction – that friendship is good for your health. For example, a Swedish study of over 736 men over six years showed that having friends significantly reduced the men’s chances of suffering from a heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease. Another study looked at 1,500 people over ten years and found that those with friends outlived those without by a massive 20%, and yet another showed a link between protein levels in cancer sufferers and friends – those with friends typically had lower protein levels, making chemotherapy treatments more effective and as a result, improving survival rates.
What’s surprising about all of this research is that it seems clear that a lack of friends can actually increase age-related illness and lead to a swifter decline. Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University explains that “one thing research shows is that as one’s social network gets smaller, one’s risk of mortality increase” and Tasha R. Have of Humboldt State University suggests “we are social animals, and we have evolved to be in groups. We have always needed others for survival. It’s in our genes”. Given all this, then, it’s no surprise that a research review of 148 studies concluded that loneliness can be just as harmful to health as not exercising, as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as alcoholism, and twice as bad as obesity.
Is Bromance Real?
Is this good news for men though? There is a rather stereotypical idea that men aren’t very good at friendship but even if that were true, doesn’t seem to matter. As the Kirby’s rat experiment demonstrates, friendship does not need to be particularly deep in order to be effective – the rats themselves had bonded for only a week. Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford University confirms this and suggests that the health benefits of friendship are not a result of talking or supporting in a traditional sense. In fact, he claims, the benefits actually increase if men get together to do something, some sort of activity together instead. Besides, it seems that men are getting better at friendship. A survey in the American Sociological Review in 2004 shows that men had an average of two friends, but by 2012, that number had increased to 4.8.
So a good friend can help treat cancer, can prevent you from having a heart attack, and will result in you living to a grand old age. They can be better for you than regular exercise and giving up smoking. They can increase your life-expectancy in surprising ways, and if you really needed another excuse for meeting up with old friends, this is definitely it. So what’s the only thing that could be better? Well that would be meeting up with old friends to take regular exercise and stop smoking together, of course!
 Louisa Dillner, 2016, Should men invest more in friendship? [online], Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/mar/14/are-bromances-good-for-mens-health [accessed: 05/31/2016]
 Robert Sanders, 2016, Bromances may be good for men’s health [online], Available at: http://news.berkeley.edu/2016/03/03/bromances-may-be-good-for-mens-health/ [accessed: 05/31/2016]
 Tara Parker-Pope, 2009, What Are Friends For? A Longer Life [online], Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/health/21well.html?_r=0 [accessed 31/05/2016]
 Tom Valeo, 2016, Good Friends Are Good For You [online], Available at: http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/features/good-friends-are-good-for-you [accessed 05/31/2-16]
 Tom Valeo, op cit.
 Daniel Duane, 2016, Do Men Suck at Friendship? [online], Available at: http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/do-men-suck-at-friendship-20140422 [accessed: 05/31/2016]
 Ryan Kisiel, 2013, To be a happy chap, see your pals twice a week: Men’s wellbeing depends on meeting up with friends and ‘doing stuff’ [online], Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2469485/Mens-wellbeing-depends-meeting-friends.html [accessed: 05/31/2-16]
 Clint Carter, 2012, The Average Man and His Friends [online], Available at: http://www.menshealth.com/guy-wisdom/better-friend [accessed: 05/31/2016]
Men’s Health: Friendship is as Important as Exercise by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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