The Psychological Effects of Friendship

It is almost a natural human tendency, with some exceptions, to desire any form of human contact or relationship. Isolation or the idea of exclusion is some of many’s greatest fear. Increasing those Facebook friend or Instagram follower counts are often goals not always acknowledged.

But if friendship is classified as almost a necessity or considered an entity to lean against, does it have actual psychological effects and even moreso health implications?

Research by neuroscientist Jim Coan illustrates that the perception of available support has greater influences on improved health than actual enacted support. Enacted support consists of fundraising or helping with basic tasks or needs.

Coan’s study involved analyzing the response of the brain’s hypothalamus when the individual is put under a stressful situation with and without the presence of someone else. The hypothalamus is responsible for releasing the stress hormone cortisol upon the identification of an alarming event. Hand holding represented the availability of human contact.

The investigation studied the results of brain response to the absence of hand holding and the difference between hand holding with a stranger and with a loved one. The results indicated that the brain’s interpretation of the situation as stressful occurred more often in those without hand holding. Those holding the hands of a loved one demonstrated even less alarming reactions than those with a stranger.

Additional trials were performed but with the company of a loved one or stranger rather than hand holding. The results further supported that knowledge of human presence reduces stimulation of the hypothalamus and stress hormone release.

Jim Coan also investigated an individual’s response when not themselves but rather a friend or stranger was put under a threatening situation. The results indicated that the closer the intimacy between the subject and other individual, the stronger the subject’s neural perception that they themselves were under attack.

According to Live Science, friendship’s ability to reduce the stress of perceived threats has not only led to decreased mortality rates but also effects double the benefits of exercising and matched to those of quitting smoking. The realization that friendship has not only social significance but also health implications can be unanticipated and slightly alarming.

As demonstrated in Coan’s trials, biologically, friendship has greater effects on our health than perceived. But psychologically, man demands companionship in order to thrive. Absolute zero human relationship will not kill a person but the symbiotic dynamic of human existence can be thrown into disequilibrium.

This then brings up the question that if it is merely the belief in the existence of our friendships that bring reassurance, then is quality of these relationships significant? Is it rather not the value of the relationship that exists in order to not feel alone but rather the comfort of knowing that someone, regardless of who they are, is present? Or are false friends equivalent to the lack of them? Maybe if we can convince ourselves that we have a great support system then we can still enjoy the health benefits that comes from having one.

Thus if we are so contingent upon the presence of other people to maintain a relatively healthy and balanced lifestyle, what defines the line between independence and loneliness? Maybe relationships and the factors that define successful ones are relative to the individual and based on their perceptions of solidarity versus chosen autonomy. There is the possibility that we are dependent upon others to establish the confidence to claim independence.

Ultimately, friendship can be considered an inspirational factor rather than a lifeline. Without the dynamic interplay of the social “give and take”, life would be one dimensional and unanimated.

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