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Dr. Susan Mathison, Published April 26 2014

Positively Beautiful: Friends are good medicine

Mark Twain once wrote, “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: This is the ideal life.”

New research has proven him spot on, especially about the friends part.

A study at the Center for Aging Studies at Flinders University in Australia found that people with a strong network of friends tend to live 22 percent longer than people without one.

On the flip-side, Brigham Young University researchers report that cutting yourself off from friends is just as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, in terms of its overall impact on your health and longevity.

The family circle is important, too, but didn’t have the impact on longevity that the circle of friends did.

All the findings point to one conclusion: Friends are good medicine. So spend some quality time with your friends.

Most of us instinctively know this. And yet, we struggle to make time for friends, either because we’re too busy with work, family and other demands, or because we spread ourselves too thinly across hundreds of “digital friends” – most of whom we’ve never even met.

I’ll admit, I occasionally have moments when I find myself with an extra ticket to an event, wishing a friend would join me. Then, scanning my phone, I ask myself, “Who are my friends again?” Yikes. Brain overload.

I’m going to issue a healing “prescription” to myself and everyone reading these words: Get more (face-to-face) time with your friends – doctor’s orders.

Here are a few tips to help make the time – and make it happen:

1. Blend work and play. Find ways to “work” with your friends. Bring them on-board to help out with philanthropic projects or set up a laid-back co-working date. Think of it as “multi-tasking for the soul.”

It’s a great way to bond over work that’s meaningful to both of you. Some of my best friends were those I met while serving on boards and committees. Occasionally there’s time to squeeze in a quick bite after a productive work session or meeting.

Plans are in place for a co-working office space launching this summer. A group is trying this out in Downtown Fargo, meeting Thursday afternoons in the back room of Atomic Coffee.

2. Blend play and play. Going to get a pedicure? Take a yoga class? Grab a coffee? Time for a walk? Put a sticky note near your phone charger that says, “Invite a friend!”

Make a habit of spontaneously inviting friends to join you for everyday outings. Do it often enough, and somebody’s bound to say, “yes.”

3. Create a club. Maybe a “book club” isn’t your thing, but what’s stopping you from starting a monthly picnic club, poetry-writing club or television-appreciation club?

“Downton Abbey” or “Mad Men” anyone? Aim for quarterly meetings if getting together once a month is too difficult. Four fabulous get-togethers per year are better than none!

4. Send a handwritten note, and write “call me when you get this” at the bottom. Snail mail is so rare these days that your friend will be stunned and delighted.

5. Define your social circle. Ever heard of “the Dunbar number?” It’s the number of friendships most people can really sustain, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar. That number? 150.

That seems a bit daunting, so I suggest defining your “personal Dunbar number” and coming up with your inner circle.

Right now write down the names of five to 15 people you consider “true friends.”

Put that list somewhere visible, and make a small effort to nourish each of those core friendships this week.

Take time to send a quick text, make a spontaneous phone call, write a hand-written note or maybe host a dinner party.

You may need to edit your social circle from time to time, deleting phone numbers attached to names unrecognized and unsubscribing from unnecessary newsletters in order to focus on the core group of people who truly enrich your life.

Remember: Pouring energy into your friendships isn’t an “indulgence.” It’s essential for your health and well-being.

So, make a date with a friend. And tell them your doctor told you so.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at info@catalystmedicalcenter.com.