All you need are friends

Many a sentimental song has been sung about the benefits of friendship. The Beatles got by with a little help from their friends. Bette Midler wailed about her best pal being the wind beneath her wings. Dionne Warwick warbled that that’s what friend are for. “You’re the first one, when things turn out bad, you know I’ll never be lonely,” sang Queen in their smash hit You’re My Best Friend...

Many a sentimental song has been sung about the benefits of friendship. The Beatles got by with a little help from their friends. Bette Midler wailed about her best pal being the wind beneath her wings. Dionne Warwick warbled that that’s what friend are for. “You’re the first one, when things turn out bad, you know I’ll never be lonely,” sang Queen in their smash hit You’re My Best Friend. There’s certainly no shortage of inspiration when it comes to crooning about platonic relationships.

Despite technology and social media fuelling the 21st Century, there’s still no substitute for the feeling you get when you meet a friend face to face. You can have a laugh, share your feelings, halve your worries, have a gossip… maybe even come up with the solution to world peace over cake and a latte (let’s face it; with caffeine and good company, absolutely anything is possible).

But even more than enjoying a dose of the social warm fuzzies, research has found that having a strong network of friends around you is key to boosting your longevity. An Australian study conducted by the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University, followed nearly 1,500 older people for 10 years and found that those with a large group of friends lived 22% longer than those with little or no social contact. The authors suspect that good friends help to discourage unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and drinking, and the companionship provided by friends may help ward off depression, boost self-esteem, and provide support.

"People with social support have fewer cardiovascular problems and immune problems, and lower levels of cortisol – a stress hormone," says Tasha R. Howe, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University. "Why? The evolutionary argument maintains that humans are social animals, and we have evolved to be in groups. We have always needed others for our survival. It's in our genes. Therefore, people with social connections feel more relaxed and at peace, which is related to better health."

Patricia Brown, a resident at Classics Residences Brighton in Victoria, found an instant community when she moved into the village six years ago with her little dog, terrier-cross Toby.

“When I turned 65 I thought to myself it’s about time we had a seachange. The housing market was up so it was a good time to sell, and I have everything I could possibly need here – people to mix with, security and carers, if I ever get sick. I’ve made some lovely friends,” she says. “I enjoy the environment here very much. Sometimes, you meet people who bring out the best in you. We have a garden plot and we spend a couple of hours together on Wednesday morning. There’s a bus that takes us on trips to places like DFO and the South Melbourne Market. It’s a lot of fun. If that’s not enough, there’s a wellness centre here, a heated pool, a gym, a brand new cinema and always someone to talk to. As my late mother would say, ‘Everybody’s got a story to tell – listen to them.’ You can learn so much from people.”

Even Toby has found himself a canine community. “Next door lives a little Bichon called Nelly and she and Toby are starting to become really good friends. When Nelly barks in the morning, Toby will go outside and I swear it’s like they talk to each other,” says Patricia. “I’m very lucky to have lovely neighbours. There’s Gary and Lynne on one side and on the other side is Jackie – she has a little Chihuahua, so there are three dogs living here in a row.

“I also spend a lot of time with the people in assisted living. They’re older and wiser and very funny. I enjoy being around people who bring out the best in me and with whom I can have a bit of fun. There’s a real sense of belonging.”

Boost your social network in three simple steps:

  • Get to know your neighbours. They’re only next-door if you ever need a hand (or a cup of sugar) and you don't have to go far to meet for a coffee. Knock on their door with a basket of muffins – a sure-fire friendship starter.
  • Join a class. When you learn a new skill (whether it's speaking a new language or embracing your inner Picasso) there’s a very good chance you’ll meet like-minded people who share common interests.
  • Go online. From Facebook to internet forums there are numerous social networks that can put you in touch with others – not only in Australia but internationally. And just because they’re online, doesn't mean it’s any less real. Communication is key, no matter the medium.