Most of us know by heart the things that increase longevity: exercising, eating more vegetables, enjoying fewer hot fudge sundaes, giving up tobacco, avoiding sky diving when drunk. But periodically, the health news reveals something surprising that also correlates with long life. One not-so-obvious life-extender, apparently, is having a supportive network of colleagues at work.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel recently reported that after following 820 adults over a 20-year period, it became clear that those who enjoyed good friendships at work had a significantly lower risk of dying from any cause.1 The subjects came from a wide spectrum of industries, and the research controlled for factors that could influence mortality such as blood pressure, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, diet, pre-existing conditions, amount of exercise per week, and so on. But even after ruling out all those other contingencies, the subjects with the most supportive peer relationships “at work” had lower rates of mortality, and the effect held over the entire 20-year period of the study.
The terrible boss, by the way, does not contribute to early death, according to this study. While having supportive peers made a big difference to lifespan, having a supportive boss made none. The effect was particularly pronounced among workers ages 38 to 43.
This was hardly the first study indicating that friendships lead to longer life, although it’s the first that focuses on the importance of workplace relationships. In fact, these results provide an interesting corollary to previous research showing that having good friends matters more to longevity than even having close family relationships.2 (Maybe it’s because you get to choose your friends, whereas you’re stuck with…ah, you know what I was going to say.) A study in 2005 out of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia found that those with a strong network of peers outlived those with the least friends by a whopping 22 percent. In contrast, family relationships seemed to have no bearing at all on mortality.3 So again, we see that friendship matters a lot, more than family or bosses. Even more startling research comes from a 2010 meta-analysis of 148 previous studies involving 300,000 people, published in PLoS Medicine. That research, focused on a seven-year period, found that those people with the best social networks had an astounding fifty percent lower risk of dying than those with limited social ties.4 That difference equates to the difference in mortality risk between smokers and non-smokers. No wonder LinkedIn is doing so well in its initial public offering. It’s not just offering business connections; it might actually help you live longer.
What this research tells us is that, to paraphrase Lennon and McCartney, not only will you get by and get high with a little help from your friends, you’ll also stay alive with a little help from your friends.5 Friendships seem to have the healing power to counteract other negative factors in life, including a bad boss or family problems. Even more, having good friends everywhere you spend time, including on the job, is key.
Why friends seem to matter to health so much is the subject of some debate. Most agree that friends can help each other get through difficult times, lessening the impact of stress. Friendships, apparently, often bring more support and less turmoil than family relationships do, and so they count more, healthwise. Some say that friends encourage healthy behaviors and support each other in getting proper medical treatment, but certainly the reverse also holds true. Studies such as the 2007 Harvard Medical School review involving 30,000 participants have shown, for instance, that those with obese friends will more likely become obese themselves.6 And those with lonely friends are more likely to become lonely and depressed themselves. Nevertheless, it’s clear that friendships exert an overall positive influence on health, and actually boost the immune system.
The implications for the medical community, should it choose to pay attention, are huge. Rather than prescribing pills and potions, doctors would do well to prescribe time spent hanging out with the gang. Given the huge impact friendships seem to exert on survival, it makes sense that public health programs should devote more resources to helping people build community and become aware of the importance of doing so.
Many health professionals downplay the relevance of encouraging friendships as a healing strategy, pointing to the lack of research linking friendships to specific health outcomes. The scientists want documentation that, for instance, contact with five friends a month leads to a 15-point drop in blood pressure, or that two dinners a week with friends lessens cancer risk twofold. They disregard the bigger fact that having friends seems to exert a preventative effect, no matter what the blood pressure or health condition of the patient.
The thing is, as Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the director of the PloS study said, “It’s hard to legislate social relationships.” But, since the latest research involves the workplace, it does seem obvious that there are some things that industry could do to help employees develop friendships on the job. For instance, companies could encourage teamwork and minimize cut-throat competitive initiatives. Also, they could allow employees ample time for lunch and breaks, and provide a nice space for interaction during these down times.
And by the way, if you don’t work at all, or you work alone all day, take heed. The study has implications for you, too. You need to spend time with peers, cultivate the relationships that make you feel good, and dump those that don’t. And you need to integrate enjoying friendship into your health practices, paying as much attention to calling friends as to popping your supplements.
As for me, I’m going to send a bonding email to my 8,000 closest Facebook friends ASAP.
1 Rettner, Rachael. “Friendly Co-workers May Increase Your Lifespan.” 11 May 2011. Business News Daily. 19 May 2011. http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/954-coworkers-social-support-mortality.html
2 O’Brien, Sharon. “To Increase Longevity, Friends Are More Important Than Family.” About.com. 18 May 2011. http://seniorliving.about.com/od/lifetransitionsaging/a/longevity.htm
3 “Longevity may be influenced by close friendship.” 16 June2005. Newsfox. 19 May 2011. < http://www.newsfox.com/pte.mc?pte=050616044>
4 Blue, Laura. “Recipe for Longevity: No Smoking, Lots of Friends.” 28 July 2010. Time. 19 May 2011. < http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2006938,00.html>
5 The Beatles. “With A Little Help From My Friends.” You Tube. 19 May 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmOtWyjs8iU
6 “Is Obesity Contagious.” 25 July 2007. New York Times. 19 May 2011. <http://news.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/07/25/is-obesity-contagious/>