As loneliness and isolation continue to climb across Canada, relationship experts emphasize the crucial role of friendships in bolstering mental and physical well-being.
This significance is especially poignant on Tuesday, known as ‘Galentine’s Day’, an unofficial but festive tribute to celebrating and cherishing the bonds of friendship.
“I love the idea of Galentine’s Day,” said Yuthika Girme, assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “It doesn’t have to be something where we’re just focusing on our romantic partnerships, that we can be showing our love and appreciation for our family, our friends and colleagues, people in our community.”
Galentine’s Day originated in 2011 from the television show Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, introduces the concept of Galentine’s Day as a day to celebrate friendship with her female friends, held on Feb.13, the day before Valentine’s Day.
“Every Feb.13, my lady friends and I leave our husbands and our boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style,” Leslie said during the episode. “Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair, minus the angst. Plus frittatas.”
Since the episode aired more than a decade ago, the holiday has turned into a cultural phenomenon. There are assorted chocolate boxes, Hallmark has dedicated cards, and there are even Galentine’s Day flowers.
Galentine’s Day’s rise in popularity could be attributed to our innate craving for social connections, which, as Girme suggests, are equally essential as romantic relationships.
“Our social connection and our social integration with family, friends, romantic partners, community and colleagues. It’s really fundamental to our health and well-being,” she said.
“There have been some studies that have shown that people who are more socially connected and more socially integrated actually live longer. And that’s accounting for important health behaviour. So, absolutely, our social support network is very important to health and well-being.”
During times of escalating loneliness and isolation, the significance of friendships becomes even more vital, as highlighted by Natasha Sharma Beganyi, founder of NKS Therapy and a professor at Humber College in Ontario.
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“There’s no question there’s a rise in loneliness,” she told Global News. “Loneliness is the extent to which you’re satisfied and feel connected to the relationship. So you can be in a marriage and you can be lonely because if you don’t feel connected and satisfied and feel that sense of intimacy with that other person, you will feel lonely.”
She believes that the rise in loneliness is partly due to our relationships becoming increasingly influenced by technology, which often lacks intimacy and genuine connection.
While technology facilitates surface-level connections, she said that true human intimacy is lacking and stressed the importance of establishing personal and intimate connections.
The link between loneliness and physical health is well established, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying it can lead to dementia, heart disease, stroke and even premature death.
In November 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that loneliness could soon become a global epidemic leading to dementia, heart disease, stroke and premature death.
One in four older adults experiences social isolation, according to the health authority. And rates of loneliness are similar all over the world, regardless of a country’s status and level of income, the WHO added.
A 2023 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers, women and those who lived alone were at greater risk of loneliness.
“In pre-pandemic times, loneliness has already been recognized as one of the major public health concerns that could affect people of any age considering that loneliness has been associated with a myriad of adverse psychological, physiological, and behavioural consequences, including depression, suicidal ideation, cardiovascular diseases, coronary heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and increased all-cause mortality,” the authors of the study state.
Since the pandemic, research found that women, youth, divorced individuals, low-income households, those living alone, students and people without large social networks were at elevated risks of loneliness amidst this public health emergency.
Connecting with friends has proven to be a powerful antidote against social isolation and loneliness, offering substantial mental and physical health benefits, Girme argued.
“There’s increasingly more evidence that our friendships are really fundamental to our well-being,” she said. “Especially because sometimes romantic partners come and go, but our friendships are often close relationships that we’ve had for decades. And so really trying to make space to love and appreciate your friends is really important.”
According to a study published in March 2023, researchers found that positive social experiences impact not only a person’s stress level and ability to cope, but also markers of physical health.
Having more positive experiences in social relationships was generally associated with better coping, lower stress and lower systolic blood pressure, or spikes in blood pressure under stress, according to the study.
Sharma Beganyi underscored the pivotal importance of relationships in our well-being, citing one of the longest-running studies of adult life as a testament to this.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938, following a group of men throughout their lives, to investigate what factors contribute to healthy aging and well-being. What the study found was that the quality of relationships was one of the key determinants of health and happiness.
“It’s really about how satisfied we feel with the connections we have. And those roles often constitute various types of people like, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, romantic spouses and romantic partners that can all be part of the friendship mix,” Sharma Beganyi said.
The reason why friendships may be so important to people is because, unlike romantic relationships, “we don’t carry the same expectations in our friendships.”
“With friendships, it’s highly accepting. The attachment process is not the same, and so it’s just a lot less complicated to maintain and sustain good, warm, loving friendships,” she explained. “And I think that is what makes them so protective because they have the capacity to last a very long time.”
She acknowledged that forming meaningful relationships as adults can be challenging, but emphasized the importance of “putting yourself out there” by engaging in activities such as joining clubs, talking with neighbours, or fostering deeper connections with long-lost friends.
“You have to be there physically in these in these places, and then you have to be open to actually engage and entertain,” she said. “Then from there, you have to build friendships.”
— with files from Global News’ Sarah Do Couto