Having close friendships in general is good for our health and wellbeing. Relationships protect us during tough times, which, believe it or not, improves our cardiovascular functioning and decreases stress levels. On the other hand, it has been proven that people with very few social ties have nearly twice the risk of dying from heart disease and are twice as likely to catch colds — even though they are less likely to have the exposure to germs that comes from frequent social contact.

As scientists continue to explore the connection between our relationships and our health, they are discovering that our Social Wellbeing might have even more influence on how healthy we are than conventional risk factors.

If you’re in a strained relationship, it could extend the time it takes for you to recover from surgery or a major injury. To study this theory, a team of researchers designed an experiment in which they studied how stress levels affect the time it takes to recover from a wound. Researchers brought 42 married couples into a hospital and created several small wounds on their arms. They then placed devices over the wounds to measure the rate of healing.

The results revealed that it took almost twice as long for the wounds to heal for couples who reported having hostility in their relationship. So if you’re in a strained relationship, it could extend the time it takes for you to recover from surgery or a major injury. Another implication from this research is that proximity matters. A friend who lives within a mile of you will likely have more influence on your wellbeing than a friend who lives several miles away. Even your next-door neighbor’s wellbeing has an impact on yours.

Because your entire social network affects your health, habits, and wellbeing, mutual friendships matter even more. These are relationships in which you and one of your close friends share a friendship with a third person. Investing in these mutual relationships will lead to even higher levels of wellbeing. This is why it is critical for us to do what we can to strengthen the entire network around us. Simply put, we have stock in others’ wellbeing.

Every hour of social time keeps stress away

In addition to close relationships and proximity, the amount of time we spend socializing matters too. Studies suggest that to have a thriving day, we need at least six hours of social time. When we get at least six hours of daily social time, it increases our wellbeing and minimizes stress and worry. I know you may think that six hours of social time is unattainable in one day but this includes time at work, at home, on the telephone, talking to friends, sending e-mail, and other communication.

When people have almost no social time in a given day, they have an equal chance of having a good day or a bad day. However, each hour of social time quickly decreases the odds of having a bad day. Even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day to 10%. And each additional hour of social time — up to about six hours — improves the odds of having a good day.

Beyond the immediate increase in wellbeing that comes with each hour of social time, the long-term benefits can be even more profound, particularly as we age. A study of more than 15,000 people over the age of 50 found that among those who were socially active, their memories declined at less than half the rate compared to those who were the least social.

Without a friend, work is a lonely place

Friendships have tremendous implications in the workplace too. Gallup has conducted extensive studies on the value of workplace friendships, and one of the most revealing questions we have asked more than 15 million employees all over the world is whether they have a “best friend at work.” We use this very specific wording because early research indicated that having a “best friend” at work was a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes than simply having a “friend” or even a “good friend.”

What is it about a close friendship in the workplace that makes such a profound difference?

Our research revealed that just 30% of employees have a best friend at work. Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.

What is it about a close friendship in the workplace that makes such a profound difference? To find out, we examined what momentary experiences throughout the course of a day lead to higher wellbeing and engagement. We discovered that the single best predictor is not what people are doing — but who they are with.

It doesn’t even matter if two friends at work are engaged in tasks that are directly related to workplace productivity. According to a study in which workers wore badges throughout the day that monitored their movements and conversations, idle chit-chat might actually be valuable to productivity. The researchers found that even small increases in social cohesiveness lead to large gains in production.

If you don’t work in an office building filled with people and places to congregate, it’s still possible to develop close relationships. A project manager explained: “The three people I work with most are scattered across the country, and we only see each other in person a couple times per year. But it is rare that a day or even a weekend passes when we are not discussing politics or sports via e-mail.” The most progressive organizations realize how technology can enable not just work-related tasks, but also help workers stay personally connected.


by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Ph.D.
Adapted from Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements