In many ways—and without even realizing to what extent—we allow stress to define our lives. Whether based in reality or only imagined, stress affects everyone at all ages. Though it may be impossible to live a stress-free life, we can ask ourselves, “Is there a single factor that can lessen my stress, so that I can enjoy life more?”
The results of a national stress survey conducted by Prevention magazine, which included 11,000 respondents, revealed that “disagreements and conflicts with loved ones” (58 percent) was the number-one stress factor. Money problems came in second (55 percent), and the fast pace of a postmodern life placed third. Close and loyal friendships and conflict-free relationships were considered the most important components of a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.1
Friendship is crucial to overcoming loneliness and leads to what most would consider a “normal” life. An essential part of “Stress: Beyond Coping,” a course developed by Skip MacCarty—now retired but formerly associate pastor for evangelism at Pioneer Memorial church on the campus of Andrews University—is the “amigo factor.”2 This factor addresses the powerful role that relationships play in reducing stress from our lives and maintaining our general well-being.
As humans, we are hardwired to connect with others. We are not meant to live in isolation or loneliness. “Illness” begins with an “I,” and “wellness” begins with “we.” According to the Bible, at the end of each day of Creation God proclaimed, “It is good!” (see Gen. 1). But after He created Adam on the sixth day, God uttered for the first time the words “It is not good.” He said: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). To remedy the situation, God created Eve to be with Adam. Today, science confirms what was so proclaimed: It is not good for a person to be alone.
Another study reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed that men experiencing a separation or divorce had a slightly higher risk of undergoing outpatient or inpatient psychiatric care than women. Loneliness and estranged relationships apparently affect men more than women. Single, separated, and divorced men as well as widowers do not live as long as married men. So it seems that women fare better without men than men do without women! Perhaps this is because women generally share feelings and emotions with one another. Men, on the other hand, are known to talk more about such things as sports, cars, and politics. This study also showed that elderly men with two or more close friends or relatives had half the death rate following a heart attack of those who had no friends.3
A study of the medical records of 1,337 students at Johns Hopkins University reported that the psychological factors that most strongly correlated with illnesses were (1) lack of closeness to parents and (2) negative attitudes toward one’s family. These findings and others led James Lynch of the University of Maryland Medical School to write: “In a surprising number of cases of premature coronary heart disease and premature death, interpersonal unhappiness, the lack of love, and human loneliness seem to appear as root causes of physical problems.”4
Barbara Powell, a clinical psychologist, adds: “In my own profession, as a clinical psychologist, whatever a patient’s initial complaint—insomnia, phobia, depression, generalized anxiety, or a lack of life direction—the discussion usually gets around to a stressful relationship or the stress of not having a relationship.”
An announcement in a church bulletin read: “Irving and Jessie were married on October 24 in the church. So ends a friendship that began in school days.” Sound whimsical? Probably a better wording would have been: “. . . so culminates a friendship that began in school days.” In the United States today, 50 percent of marriages really do end in divorce. Marriage breakups are often because of the loss of the bonds of friendship.
Loving relationships and loyal friendships help provide needed social support in times of severe stress. They likewise promote happiness, better health, and longevity. A research team, headed by Robert M. Nerem at the University of Houston, set out to see if diet alone would raise cholesterol level and produce a heart attack. The team developed a high-cholesterol diet and fed it to their test rabbits. Sure enough, the diet produced the anticipated effects. The rabbits showed high cholesterol and heart disease.
As the team members reexamined the data, however, they noticed that there was one group of rabbits that had not developed high cholesterol or heart disease despite being fed the same diet. After further study, the baffled team discovered that the lab assistant who fed the rabbits often brought his young daughter with him. Not knowing that she was interfering with a controlled experiment, the little girl would feed the rabbits and then take them out of their cages to pet them. The result was that the rabbits that were regularly talked to and played with had a 60 percent lower rate of cardiovascular disease.
The difference in the results was so significant that the experiment had to be repeated. As part of the intentional design of the second experiment, a special group of rabbits was petted and played with for five to 10 minutes each time they were fed. The results were the same as in the previous experiment. The researchers found it hard to believe that merely being held and talked to could make such a difference, so the experiment was once again repeated. The results were the same. The difference was these rabbits had a friend!5
There’s some truth in the adage “You need at least one hug a day for survival, three hugs for maintenance, and seven hugs for growth.”
A friend sent me pictures of twin babies who were born prematurely. The nurses weren’t holding out much hope for their survival, especially for the smaller one. Then something remarkable happened. One night, when the nurses thought the smaller baby would surely die, one of the nurses put her in the same incubator with her sister. Almost as soon as the larger twin felt her sister next to her, she reached out and put her arm around her. Lying next to her sister, the smaller twin cuddled up to her all night. Tubes were in both their arms and noses, but they were close to each other. When the nurses came in the next day, they were indeed surprised to see that the smaller baby girl was alert and responsive. From then on both twins grew and gained weight. They not only survived; they thrived! A hug and intimacy made the difference.
Lester Breslow, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied 7,000 people during a period of nine years. When he initiated the study, he asked the participants how many close friends they had. At the end of the nine years he discovered a direct correlation between the number of deaths and the number of friends the participants had had. His comparison showed consistently within each age group that three times as many of those who had had the fewest friendship connections had died compared to those who had had the most friendship connections.6
Relationships exist at five levels. At the bottom of the ladder is the stranger, the person we may nod to but don’t really know. At the next level are acquaintances—people with whom we speak on occasion or discuss the weather. At the casual level there are fewer people in number. They may work in the same building with us or take the same class; we may exchange some opinions or an idea or two during occasional encounters. The next level comprises an even smaller
but closer group of 10 to 15 people to whom we might reveal some of our inner feelings and emotions. At the highest level are the fewest number of people, but these are intimate friends who know us well. They are our spouses, our children, loyal friends who will stick with us through thick and thin. Characteristically, this level of relationship cultivates complete openness, acceptance, affirmation, and mutual loyalty.7
The Bible revealed to us long ago what research is now finding to be a cure for stress and a means to a joyful life. Wherever Jesus went, there was always a crowd. Then there were the 70. Then there were the 12 disciples. Each one felt that being close to Jesus and to one another was a blessing. But then there was His inner circle—Peter, James, John; Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. As their friendships developed, they grew in happiness and in the success of what they did. Four days after their brother’s death, Mary and Martha found freedom from stress just in the very fact that Jesus had finally arrived in Bethany.
Studies show that it’s not how many people we’re acquainted with that makes a difference. Health benefits come from how intimate and genuine our relationships are. You’ll find a difference in your living if you can count on even four or five really good friends with whom you can share your feelings, and from whom you can get the hugs and support you need. If you have even one close friend, consider yourself wealthy—rich in the amigo factor.
Treasure and cultivate unselfish and close friendships wherever and whenever you can. If you move to a new place, make new friends. But don’t forget the old ones; give them a call or write them a letter. They will appreciate it and reciprocate. Friends bring us great joy and happiness as well as lower our stress level. As William Temple once said: “The greatest medicine is a true friend.”
But the truest and greatest friend one can have is the One who said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1), and “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Whatever your age, your occupation, your gender, or your problem, you can be joyful and stress-free if Jesus remains your friend.
“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). No one who has Jesus for a friend will ever have to be alone.