The Science Behind Friendship and Its Largely Overlooked Importance

Yes, there’s scientific research on that too.

For many of us, the top of our life priority list might look something like this: family, work—maybe exercise. Time with friends can sometimes end up near the bottom.

That’s a mistake, says Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and the author of the new book “Friendship,” which was published last month by W.W. Norton & Co. Ms. Denworth interviews animal biologists studying baboons and rhesus macaque monkeys, anthropologists and neuroscientists to uncover just how important friendship is not only for happiness and emotional health, but, she argues, physical health, too. In fact, friends are key to our very survival, Ms. Denworth asserts.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview.

What does studying how animals relate to each other tell us about human friendships?

At its simplest, it’s just how critical quality social bonds and friendships are. In animals, the big measures that evolutionary biologists study are reproductive success, which they count as either how many babies you have or how long those babies live, and longevity, or how long you survive. Nonhuman primates have very structured hierarchies that they exist in, and everyone assumed that that must have more importance for how long you live and how many babies you have and how healthy they are. And it wasn’t. The most important thing was the strength of the social bonds, how positively and well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals. Scientists really couldn’t believe it.

How does friendship affect physical health?

Friendship literally improves your body’s cardiovascular functioning, how your immune system works, how you sleep. You can imagine the food you put in your body makes you healthy or not. But sitting in a coffee shop with someone and just chatting about what’s going on with your life, we always thought emotionally that made you feel good. But actually it really is doing much more.

A big study at Harvard of men across their lives from 20 to 80 found that the single best predictor of your health and happiness at 80 was not your wealth or your professional success. It was your relationships at 50.

What makes a good friendship?

The simple definition that biologists use is a friendship is positive, it makes you feel good, it is long-lasting and stable and it has reciprocity and cooperation in it. So there’s a little give and take. Friendship is about setting up your life so you have people you can rely on when you need them. Literally, it was for when the lions came hunting for your friends. Baboons and monkeys do better when they are together. It’s why humans were never really alone.

There’s not one way to do friendship. Some people are introverts and that’s fine. The difference between not having any close friends and having one is enormous in terms of your emotional health and physical health. Quality matters so much more than quantity. Most people only have an average of four really close friends.

Why do we become friends with one person and not another?

There’s this interesting chemistry to friendship. Just like in romance, you are more drawn to some people than you are others. Some of it is very straightforward: You are interested in the same things, you spend time in the same place. That’s one reason why we are close to relatives, because you have a head start, you spend more time with them than you do anyone else. We do tend to be better friends with people who are more like us.

Having a shared world-view turns out to be important. Scientists looked at all these people in a social network, showed them the same sets of videos and looked at how their brains responded to these videos. They could predict just by looking at the brain processing who was friends with whom. Literally, you hear and see the world more like the people you are friends with. The big question is: Is it cause or effect? Are you drawn to people who already see and process the world more similarly from the start or do you become more similar? Of course, as with so many things, the answer is probably both.

What impact is digital communication and social media having on friendships?

With relationships, it usually is net positive. One reason is just because people who are active on social media tend to have wider, bigger, more diverse social networks. What the research is showing is we tend to use social media as just an extra way to communicate with your good friends. And older adults, relationally, they absolutely benefit from social media because they have a harder time getting out or getting around or they’re further from their families. It really has opened up a new channel for people.

That doesn’t mean if you only operate online, you get all those benefits. You don’t. You need a lot of face-to-face time to get the health benefits. But it’s just not true that being online is automatically this big negative. The people for whom social media has a clearer negative effect seem to be people who are already suffering from depression maybe or loneliness.

USA Memory Champion on Improving One’s Memory

The American memory champion’s results give credence to the notion that (as with other things in life) you can get good at anything you practice at — including memory.

In 2009, after Nelson Dellis’s grandmother Josephine passed away from Alzheimer’s disease (which may have a hereditary component), he was inspired to find ways to keep his own brain healthy and sharp.

“I was a good student, but my memory was average,” Dellis, 35, tells CNBC Make It.

Dellis scoured the internet looking for tips to improve his memory and joined a few forums where professional “memory athletes” (people who train their memory skills for high performance) chatted about different memory techniques. Then he listened to “Quantum Memory: Learn to Improve Your Memory with The World Memory Champion,” an audiobook by Dominic O’Brien, a seven-time world memory champion.

“After that, I went off and, through trial and error, figured out what [techniques] worked well for me,” Dellis says.

Today Dellis, author of the book “Remember It” and a four-time USA Memory Champion (an annual competition for elite mental athletes), is a full-time memory coach based in Miami, Florida. He charges $250 an hour for private lessons to the likes CEOs and billionaires, including Mark Cuban and Sara Blakely.

Here are Dellis’ top three tips on improving your memory and staying sharp.

1. Go offline

Dellis says one the easiest memory tips that he’s learned over the years is to take time to totally disconnect from technology — including your smartphone — for at least an hour a day.

That’s because presence is important for memory, says Dellis.

“Your brain is a processing unit,” he says. “If your brain isn’t present to receive [information] (i.e., you’re distracted and not paying attention), how on earth do you think it’s going to be able to remember it? You’ll be surprised how powerful your natural memory is if you just try and pay attention.”

Dellis’s advice is supported by research: According to a 2017 study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, researchers found the mere presence of a smartphone reduces cognitive capacity, affecting one’s brain to hold and process data.

2. Think in pictures

“My goal whenever I memorize something is to turn it into a mental picture in my mind,” he says, which is “any mental representation of what you’re trying to memorize, using as many of your senses as possible.” It could be an association, a sound, a feeling — anything that’s “meaningful” to you, Dellis says.

That’s because it’s much easier to remember a picture of something that you are familiar with than words relating to something new and difficult, he says. (Studies in older adults have shown that pictures can help with memory.)

Dellis uses the example of remembering the name chervil (an herb) to buy at the grocery store.

“Most people might not even know what that is. So I might break that word down into what it sounds like: ‘sure-vill.’ So maybe my meaningful image could be, me saying ‘sure!’ enthusiastically to a ’vill’ain. The more context the better. Maybe I’m agreeing with this villain, because if I don’t, he’ll take all the chervil in the world and secretly garnish all the food in the world and ruin the taste of everything,” Dellis says.

The “more over-the-top and bizarre you make the image, the better.”

To practice, Dellis suggests that when you meet someone for the first time, turn their name into mental images, as he did with chervil.

“You’ll have a higher chance of remembering the person’s name, and you’ll be training your brain to get better/quicker at thinking in pictures,” he says.

3. Explore your ‘memory palace’

When you’re thinking in pictures, you need a place to store those images. So most memory athletes use a technique called the “memory palace,” according to Dellis. The technique (which dates back to the ancient Greeks) has to do with remembering things based on location

According to Dellis, a memory palace works like this: Think of a familiar place (like your house, apartment, office, etc.) and imagine a mental pathway through it. To store your images, simply imagine or “stick” each image on a location along the path in your mind. The idea is that later on when you want to retrieve the information, all you have to do is think of your memory palace, walk back through it in your mind and pick up the images you left there.

It sounds a bit crazy, but it works, according to Dellis and it allows top memory athletes to memorize thousands of pieces of information, he says.

“It’s an effective way of stringing together sets of memories because it uses more and various parts of the brain than simply short term recall (visual, emotional, language, imagination and short term memory),” neuroscientist Tara Swart tells CNBC Make It.

To practice, Dellis suggests choosing three familiar places and selecting 10 locations along your mental path through each. Start by storing daily to-do lists and grocery lists there as practice.

Two Hours of Nature a Week is Key for Well-Being and Health

A new reason for wanting to preserve natural environments. There are many people today that are struggling with too much stress and health problems, and some good doctors have started prescribing time in nature because the evidence more and more shows its effectiveness.

Spending at least two hours a week in nature may be a crucial threshold for promoting health and wellbeing, according to a new large-scale study.

Research led by the University of Exeter, published in Scientific Reports and funded by NIHR, found that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature a week are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who don’t visit nature at all during an average week. However, no such benefits were found for people who visited natural settings such as town parks, woodlands, country parks and beaches for less than 120 minutes a week.

The study used data from nearly 20,000 people in England and found that it didn’t matter whether the 120 minutes was achieved in a single visit or over several shorter visits. It also found the 120 minute threshold applied to both men and women, to older and younger adults, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among those living in both rich and poor areas, and even among people with long term illnesses or disabilities.

Dr Mat White, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study, said: “It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and wellbeing but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough. The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing. Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.”

There is growing evidence that merely living in a greener neighbourhood can be good for health, for instance by reducing air pollution. The data for the current research came from Natural England’s Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey, the world’s largest study collecting data on people’s weekly contact with the natural world.

Co-author of the research, Professor Terry Hartig of Uppsala University in Sweden said: “There are many reasons why spending time in nature may be good for health and wellbeing, including getting perspective on life circumstances, reducing stress, and enjoying quality time with friends and family. The current findings offer valuable support to health practitioners in making recommendations about spending time in nature to promote basic health and wellbeing, similar to guidelines for weekly physical.”

Perseverance for Goals Can Help Fight Mental Health Problems, 18-Year Study Finds

Good new research on treating mental health problems without the use of drugs is out.

People who don’t give up on their goals (or who get better over time at not giving up on their goals) and who have a positive outlook appear to have less anxiety and depression and fewer panic attacks, according to a study of thousands of Americans over the course of 18 years. Surprisingly, a sense of control did not have an effect on the mental health of participants across time.

The study was published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder,” said Nur Hani Zainal, MS, from The Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study. “Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable and manageable.”

Depression, anxiety and panic disorders are common mental health disorders that can be chronic and debilitating and put a person’s physical health and livelihood at risk, according to Zainal and her co-author, Michelle G. Newman, PhD, also of The Pennsylvania State University.

“Often, people with these disorders are stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and behaviors that can make them feel worse,” said Newman. “We wanted to understand what specific coping strategies would be helpful in reducing rates of depression, anxiety and panic attacks.”

Zainal and Newman used data from 3,294 adults who were studied over 18 years. The average age of participants was 45, nearly all were white and slightly fewer than half were college-educated. Data were collected three times, in 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2005 and 2012 to 2013. At each interval, participants were asked to rate their goal persistence (e.g., “When I encounter problems, I don’t give up until I solve them”), self-mastery (e.g., “I can do just anything I really set my mind to”) and positive reappraisal (e.g., “I can find something positive, even in the worst situations”). Diagnoses for major depressive, anxiety and panic disorders were also collected at each interval.

People who showed more goal persistence and optimism during the first assessment in the mid-1990s had greater reductions in depression, anxiety and panic disorders across the 18 years, according to the authors.

And throughout those years, people who began with fewer mental health problems showed more increased perseverance toward life goals and were better at focusing on the positive side of unfortunate events, said Zainal.

“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience and optimism,” she said. “Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs.”

Unlike in previous research, Zainal and Newman did not find that self-mastery, or feeling in control of one’s fate, had an effect on the mental health of participants across the 18-year period.

“This could have been because the participants, on average, did not show any changes in their use of self-mastery over time,” said Newman. “It is possible that self-mastery is a relatively stable part of a person’s character that does not easily change.”

The authors believe their findings will be beneficial for psychotherapists working with clients dealing with depression, anxiety and panic disorders.

“Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations. Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in,” said Zainal. “Boosting a patient’s optimism and resilience by committing to specific courses of actions to make dreams come to full fruition despite obstacles can generate more positive moods and a sense of purpose.”

Gratitude in the Workplace Improves Employee Health

It turns out that making people feel valued goes a long way.

If you knew that expressing gratitude to a colleague would improve their life and yours, would you do it more often?

A new study by Portland State University researchers — business professor David Cadiz, psychology professor Cynthia Mohr, and Alicia Starkey, a recent Ph.D. graduate in psychology — together with Clemson State University professor Robert Sinclair, exhibits a positive relationship between expressed workplace gratitude, physical health and mental health.

The study, “Gratitude reception and physical health: Examining the mediating role of satisfaction with patient care in a sample of acute care nurses,” shows that being thanked more often at work predicted better sleep, fewer headaches and healthier eating, because it improved nurses’ work satisfaction.

Improving Self-Care in a Stressful Work Environment

The study involved a group of Oregon nurses, a profession that has a particularly high rate of burnout. Cadiz discusses the findings and how applying the research can have a significant impact on quality of life and job retention by preventing stress-related illnesses and disease.

“Nurses tend to have a thankless job. It’s very physical, and they’re often being screamed at by patients who are at their lowest. When nurses receive gratitude, it boosts them,” Cadiz explains.

“This type of study helps us understand how to keep nurses in the workforce in a healthy way. Nurses strongly align their profession with their identity and often look out for patients more than themselves. The gratitude matches up with their identity, gives them satisfaction in a job well done and ultimately increases self-care.”

Many people inherently connect their identity to their job and feelings of appreciation within their roles. Employers who understand and react to this can create positive social and economic change.

Gratitude is Good Business

From an organizational, policy and leadership perspective, Cadiz says that employers should create formal or informal opportunities for people to express gratitude. Including gratitude in a business plan is an essential step that many business leaders miss, and that omission can have financial consequences.

“Employees that receive positive feedback are healthier, and that can impact the bottom line,” adds Cadiz. “Preventing headaches and other stress-related symptoms means fewer sick days, and, in this case, cuts down the cost of replacement nurses and overtime pay.”

These small changes can have a dramatic fiscal impact over time, which can result in more staff, better pay rates and increased benefits.

The big takeaway — express gratitude when you see someone doing a good job. A positive feedback loop impacts you and those around you, and can ultimately shape a healthier and happier community.

Just 20 Minutes in Nature Reduces Stress Levels

A good prescription for a stressed out society.

Taking at least twenty minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels. That’s the finding of a study that has established for the first time the most effective dose of an urban nature experience. Healthcare practitioners can use this discovery, published in Frontiers in Psychology, to prescribe ‘nature-pills’ in the knowledge that they have a real measurable effect.

“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

A free and natural stress-relieving remedy

Nature pills could be a low-cost solution to reduce the negative health impacts stemming from growing urbanization and indoor lifestyles dominated by screen viewing. To assist healthcare practitioners looking for evidence-based guidelines on what exactly to dispense, Hunter and her colleagues designed an experiment that would give a realistic estimate of an effective dose.

Over an 8-week period, participants were asked to take a nature pill with a duration of 10 minutes or more, at least 3 times a week. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were measured from saliva samples taken before and after a nature pill, once every two weeks.

“Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature. There were a few constraints to minimize factors known to influence stress: take the nature pill in daylight, no aerobic exercise, and avoid the use of social media, internet, phone calls, conversations and reading,” Hunter explains.

She continues, “Building personal flexibility into the experiment, allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken, and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling.”

To make allowances for busy lifestyles, while also providing meaningful results, the experimental design was novel in other aspects too.

“We accommodated day to day differences in a participant’s stress status by collecting four snapshots of cortisol change due to a nature pill,” says Hunter. “It also allowed us to identify and account for the impact of the ongoing, natural drop in cortisol level as the day goes on, making the estimate of effective duration more reliable.”

Nature will nurture

The data revealed that just a twenty-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. But if you spent a little more time immersed in a nature experience, 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at their greatest rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up but at a slower rate.

“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription,” says Hunter. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”

Hunter hopes this study will form the basis of further research in this area.

“Our experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability and culture influences the effectiveness of nature experiences on well-being. This will allow customized nature pill prescriptions, as well as a deeper insight on how to design cities and wellbeing programs for the public.”

Mental Health Disorders Have Increased Significantly Among Teens and Young Adults

Mental health issues are one of the defining problems of this era.

The percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has risen significantly over the past decade, with no corresponding increase in older adults, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” said lead author Jean Twenge, PhD, author of the book “iGen” and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

The research was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Twenge and her co-authors analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey that has tracked drug and alcohol use, mental health and other health-related issues in individuals age 12 and over in the United States since 1971. They looked at survey responses from more than 200,000 adolescents age 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2017, and almost 400,000 adults age 18 and over from 2008 to 2017.

The rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52 percent in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 (from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent) and 63 percent in young adults age 18 to 25 from 2009 to 2017 (from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent). There was also a 71 percent increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days from 2008 to 2017 (from 7.7 percent to 13.1 percent). The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47 percent from 2008 to 2017 (from 7.0 percent to 10.3 percent).

There was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing depression or psychological distress during corresponding time periods. The researchers even saw a slight decline in psychological distress in individuals over 65.

“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” said Twenge, who believes this trend may be partially due to increased use of electronic communication and digital media, which may have changed modes of social interaction enough to affect mood disorders. She also noted research shows that young people are not sleeping as much as they did in previous generations.

The increase in digital media use may have had a bigger impact on teens and young adults because older adults’ social lives are more stable and might have changed less than teens’ social lives have in the last ten years, said Twenge. Older adults might also be less likely to use digital media in a way that interferes with sleep — for example, they might be better at not staying up late on their phones or using them in the middle of the night.

“These results suggest a need for more research to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes and to develop specialized interventions for younger age groups,” she said.

Given that the increase in mental health issues was sharpest after 2011, Twenge believes it’s unlikely to be due to genetics or economic woes and more likely to be due to sudden cultural changes, such as shifts in how teens and young adults spend their time outside of work and school. If so, that may be good news, she said.

“Young people can’t change their genetics or the economic situation of the country, but they can choose how they spend their leisure time. First and most important is to get enough sleep. Make sure your device use doesn’t interfere with sleep — don’t keep phones or tablets in the bedroom at night, and put devices down within an hour of bedtime,” she said. “Overall, make sure digital media use doesn’t interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise and sleep.”