Jack came to my office with his brother. As his brother was walking toward the treatment room for his chemotherapy, Jack took me aside. “I’m usually too busy to come, but I know my brother is doing real bad, “Jack said, “I want to know if I’ll do better than him if I get cancer. I mean, he drinks, smokes, is overweight, and probably eats potato chips for breakfast. I do none of that. I’ll be okay, right?”
With a little prodding I discovered that Jack did not have much time for anything except work. “It cost me my marriage, but you can’t have everything,” Jack continued. Friends, I asked? Jack shrugged. Then I said something that really shocked Jack: Recent research has shown that people with poor habits live longer if they have friends than people with good habits who did not have friends. People without friends are three times more likely to die compared with those with strong friendships over a nine year period in one study. Jack was dumbfounded. “You mean being alone is worse for you than smoking?”
Having friends or social connectedness has profound physical and emotional effects upon a person’s health. Numerous studies have shown lower stress, lower blood pressure, increased blood flow to the brain and other vital organs, along with fewer cardiac diseases in individuals with friends. Additionally, measured inflammation levels are lower, immunologic function is maintained even with aging, and wound healing is better. At the gene level, those with friends have diminished genes that turn on inflammation. In terms of mental health, those with friends have less depression, more self-esteem, more compassion, are more trustworthy, and cooperate better with others.
How can friendship have such profound effects? The Bible states that “A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17: 17). How does friendship that embodies love look? One of the great examples of friendship in the Bible is that of David and Jonathan. Though taking place 3000 years ago, this example of friendship is still relevant to us today. King Saul of Israel, Jonathan’s father, had become jealous of David’s exploits and victories as commander of Saul’s army and obsessed in wanting to kill David. Jonathan realized David was innocent of any wrongdoing and a faithful follower of the king. As a result of his friendship with David, Jonathan spoke well of David, putting his own safety and standing in the family at risk: “Let not the king to wrong to his servant David; has not not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistines. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?” (1 Samuel 19: 4-5) Jonathan continued to support David even when David went into exile as the king continued to threaten his life. Such was the friendship so close between David and Jonathan that David spoke at Jonathan’s funeral after Jonathan had died in battle: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very close to me. Your love for me was wonderful” (2 Samuel 1: 26). Jonathan’s life was cut short by death on the battlefield, but certainly David’s life was greatly impacted and prolonged by Jonathan’s actions.
Research has shown that the attitude and action of love produces beneficial effects upon the individual as that individual reaches out to others. On a biochemical level, love releases chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and oxytocin, that cause calmness, pleasure, and happiness. As Paul in the Book of Acts recalls the words of Jesus: “’It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) with the word “blessed” having the same root as the word “happy.” With all these effects, no wonder friendship has such profound and powerful effects upon a person, even overcoming detrimental habits and life styles.
Jack had a number of laudable habits that contribute to long life, but was missing the vital component of social connectedness (friendship) that in itself has profound benefits to health. Is Jack an isolated case? Recent research has shown that more than twenty-five percent of Americans had no one to confide in, no close friend.