There’s that woman you talk to every afternoon in the carpool line. You chat about what’s going on at school, in the neighborhood, maybe fill each other in on a great sale on kids’ shoes. But even though you’re just social acquaintances, is she important to your overall quality of life?
Definitely, says Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. “A friend is far more intimate, but people tend to have more acquaintances than friends,” says Levine. “They are useful, they make you feel part of a community.”
Levine, who is also the author of “Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Break-Up With Your Best Friend” (Overlook, 2009), says acquaintances are part of the important, complex hierarchy of friendships. Among the many roles they play, acquaintances are “potential friends”—and that’s a good thing.
As you get older, it can be harder to make new friends. Not as a function of age, exactly, but because life gets more diverse. People marry, they have kids, they have jobs, they change jobs, and there are fewer opportunities to remain connected to the people outside these work-school-home circles. That reality, however, might not be good for your health. Research across a variety of specialties has found that friendships—from acquaintances to BFFs—help keep you healthy.
For example, people with few or no close friends have approximately a 50 percent higher risk of suffering a first-time heart attack, according to several recent studies, and the heart-healthy benefits of lower stress levels among people with a solid social support network have been widely studied. In addition, a Harvard University study published in 2010 in the Journal of Neuroscience found that the brain had different reactions, using greater neural activity, with friends and acquaintances than with strangers.
And it’s not just the brain and the heart: A 2012 study from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine found that friendship (at least among high school-age girls) can influence body weight. Girls in the 2012 study were less likely to be obese if their friends were thinner than they were (using body mass index as the barometer). Similarly, research from the University of Bristol in England found that younger children with a large social circle were likely to be more active and healthier than those who lacked friends.
Make new friends but keep the old
No matter what age you are, it’s never too late to make friends and enjoy the benefits of new relationships: An analysis of the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that having a strong network of friends in old age resulted in a longer life span.