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Friends - The benefits are difficult to measure, but they are so important!

Let's hear it for friends! In the quest for a longer and healthier life, friendships play a key role in making us happy -- and keeping us healthy. While it is well known that having a strong social network can make our lives richer and more abundant, research has shown that it can boost the immune system and cardiovascular health, and even help us live longer.
A ten-year Australian study, for example, found that older people (over the age of 70) with a large circle of friends were 22 per cent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. And research has also found that strong social ties are linked to better brain health and motor skills like strength, speed and dexterity. (See Social networks and brain health andSocial activity and motor skills.)
"In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn't terribly well appreciated," Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, told The New York Times. "There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships."
Strong friendships help to protect us against stress, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness, according to the Mayo Clinic. And, in case you're wondering, the health and psychological benefits of friendship hold true for both men and women.
Expanding the network
While having a supportive social network is good for us, it's not always easy to make new friends, or for that matter, even find time for the ones we have. (See 5 tips for keeping friendships warm even when life is hectic.)
If you're looking to put yourself out there a little more, here are some basic tips for meeting new people and expanding your social network.
Get out with your pet. If you haven't noticed, pets are great conversation-starters. Seek out a popular dog park, stop to chat with the people you pass on your daily neighborhood jaunts, or make pet play dates.
Work out. Joining a fitness class or starting a walking group is good for you in more ways that one. Get fit and expand your social circle at the same time.
Just say yes. When you're invited to a party, dinner or other social event, accept the invitation -- even if you're tempted to decline because you may not know everyone there or you're worried about feeling awkward. Keep in mind that you can always leave an event if it's not enjoyable.
Volunteer or join a cause. Hospitals, museums, community centers, charitable groups, places of worship and other organizations are frequently in search of volunteers or new members. You can form strong connections when you work with people who share a mutual interest or a goal you believe in. Check out your city's website for information about community groups and volunteer opportunities.

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