Tell me the strength of your ties to others, and I'll tell you how long you'll live.
This declaration may be a bit of an exaggeration, but researchers report that individuals with strong ties to others live longer than individuals who choose a solitary lifestyle. After reviewing nearly 150 studies on longevity, researchers concluded that "stronger social relationships were associated with a reduced risk of death of 50%."
Like the Beatles, who get by "with a little help from my friends," do individuals with solid relationships enjoy longer lives because they have more support when the going gets tough? Or does interacting with others generate biochemicals in our bodies that protect our health, much like the antioxidants in red wine? Whatever the reason, solid friendships seem to strengthen our immune system when responding to the ravages of life's inevitable storms.
But how do we build enduring connections with others? Henry David Thoreau said, "The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend." Strengthening relationships, however, isn't as straightforward as Thoreau suggests. Specific skills are involved.
Brian Ogolsky, a University of Illinois professor of human and community development, and his colleague Jill R. Bowers surveyed 35 studies and over 12,000 reports to identify the essential skills needed for promoting healthy relationships. They found five strategies that emerged as key to strengthening relationships between spouses. But the same principles can be applied to building strong ties between friends.
The five factors are: openness, positivity, assurances, shared tasks and a shared social network.
Openness is characterized by a willingness to talk about feelings—yours and those of your friend or spouse. Positivity involves being upbeat and cheerful and enjoying a playful sense of humor. Assurances entails giving your spouse or friend signals that you are committed to the relationship for the long haul. Shared tasks include switching the load of maintaining the friendship from one to the other, as well as sharing everyday tasks and each other favors as the need arises. And a shared social network, which could include neighbors, family or a religious group, while not essential, can further strengthen the ties.
Taking any important relationship for granted is a dangerous strategy—that is, if we want to keep it alive and vital. The good news is, it's never too late to express anew our affection and appreciation for those individuals who are helping keep us strong and vigorous and for whom we can be equally supportive.