The Power of Strong Friendships in Strengthening Well-Being

UPDATED: April 20, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 28, 2023
group of friends canoeing

The Missouri River rolled by on our right, shining bright as it reflected the noonday sun. To our left, leafy green trees obscured a golden-yellow cliff face that climbed high into the sky. Below us lay a crushed limestone bike path called the Katy Trail, a gray snake that slithers east to west across Missouri. Small rocks crunched and cracked beneath our tires. We forged ahead at 14 mph, a brisk pace but one that made conversation possible.

And when my friend Fred “Honey Pot” Williams, M.D., a 62-year-old gastroenterologist and beekeeper (hence the nickname), talks, I listen.

We talked about friendship; we talked about loneliness; we talked about defeating the cancer that lurks within him—and we talked about how all of those are related.

This conversation came during an annual adventure called 50-50-50 in which my friends and I hike 50 miles, bike 50 miles and canoe 50 miles all in one epic four-day weekend. We originally scheduled it so Williams would join us on the last day of his radiation treatments—a dramatic and symbolic middle finger to his cancer. He missed a couple radiation sessions, so he ended up joining us when he had a few left—an even more dramatic and symbolic middle finger. All weekend, I wondered whether he joined us despite or because of those treatments; I ultimately concluded the answer was both.

We “failed” to complete the 50-50-50 mission this year. A nasty headwind on the Missouri River on Day 1 put us behind schedule and blew up our carefully choreographed plans. We never caught up, so 50-50-50 became 50-50-30, as we fell short on the hiking miles. But if it were easy, anyone could do it, and those miles are the means, not the end.

Why friends are important

The end is strengthened relationships, which are always important, but even more so now, for the 12 of us on the trip as a whole and for Williams in particular. Having strong friendships is important for everybody at all times but especially so for someone enduring a massively stressful situation like he is—frankly, like we all have in the past few years.

A 2021 study by the “American Perspectives Survey” found that “15% of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.” According to the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard Graduate School of Education, “36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel ‘serious loneliness.’”

Aside from emotional distress, loneliness may lead to health issues that are widespread and terrifying. According to the “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults” consensus study report, social isolation—defined as “the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly,” according to the National Institute on Aging—“has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes.” The same meta analysis found social isolation to be associated with “an approximately 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia” and “a 29% increased risk of incident coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.”

An epidemic of loneliness

In its “2022 State of Remote Work” report, Buffer reported that 24% of people who work remotely named loneliness a problem with that lifestyle, second only to “not being able to unplug.” In the 2022 “Social Connection in Remote Work” report, 55% of respondents said they were lonely at least some of the time.

And all of that is going to get worse, because our loneliness epidemic is going to get worse. The future of work is headed toward more employees working remote or using a hybrid model. We’re already lonely. And now more of us are going to lock ourselves in home offices for eight or more hours a day. We are treating the loneliness epidemic with more loneliness.

The situation is dire but not hopeless. “I’m an optimist because the data shows that we don’t necessarily have to become lonelier just because we’re working remotely more often or all the time,” says Kasley Killam, founder and executive director of Social Health Labs and Harvard-trained expert in loneliness and social health.

There are ways to combat loneliness, Killam says, and one obvious way is to build relationships—deep, abiding, face-to-face relationships—through joining groups of like-minded individuals. Yes, those relationships are hard to form, hard to grow, hard to keep. But the stakes are too high, and the benefits too deep, not to try.

Negative effects of loneliness

Research has shown that tight-knit communities experience much better outcomes during and after crises. Our social health helps our physical health. “We understand physical health is about our bodies. We understand mental health is about our minds. I argue that we also need to prioritize social health, which is about our relationships,” Killam says.

In Williams, I see both a model for combating loneliness through social health and proof of why it’s important.

As a gastroenterologist, Williams sees health problems caused by loneliness on a daily basis. Loneliness exacerbates stress, which leads to poor eating habits, which brings those lonely people to his practice. Occasionally, he has patients with nobody to drive them to and from a colonoscopy. His heart breaks for them.

Until five years ago, Williams, too, struggled with loneliness. Most of his friends were the husbands of his wife’s friends and not necessarily men he had much in common with, particularly enjoyed hanging out with or grew close with.

Finding your friends

That began to change in 2017. Always a fitness buff, he joined a men’s fitness group called F3. “It took me 60 years to find my tribe,” he says—but once he found it, his life has never been the same.

In F3—a network of free, outdoor, peer-led workouts with 3,545 locations as of early November with more added every week—he is immersed in a group of like-minded men, and it was with them that he formed more deep friendships in a few years than he had in the rest of his life combined—including with me. And it was to those men, including me, that he turned when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer.

Williams sees his battle with cancer as God’s way of showing him grace and teaching him about humility. He believes God led him to F3 so that when he got cancer, he’d have friends to share his suffering.

He shudders to think of the loneliness he’d endure if he suffered through this without us.

On Day 2 of 50-50-50, we piled into a canoe outfitter’s van and drove along a road that ran parallel to the Missouri River. Thick fog shrouded a valley as we sped into it. As we drove out of it, the blue sky returned.

That’s an apt metaphor for what Williams is going through. Too often we describe fighting cancer as a battle, a test of our toughness, a measure of our resolve, as if the way to win is to have enough of both. I loathe that line of thinking. Williams won’t beat cancer because he’s tough or persistent or in shape, and he’d be pissed at me if I wrote about it like that.

A supportive community

At the same time, his mindset matters. Killam says tons of research backs that up. When he told me he had cancer, he said he had spent a few days wallowing in self-pity. Of course he did! He still goes there sometimes, going into and out of light, into and out of darkness, just as we did in the van. It’s easier to say than to do, but the more he stays in the light, the better off he will be. And one way to stay in the light is to be surrounded by loved ones.

“It’s possible that joining the men’s fitness group and embedding himself in that supportive community could actually improve his health trajectory, ease his symptoms and maybe even help him recover or live longer,” Killam says. “Human connection is truly powerful, affecting us at the physiological level.”

Williams is familiar with the research Killam was referring to. We talked about it as we rode bikes, the river to our right, the cliffs to our left, the gravel underneath us. I asked him: Does going to F3 workouts help in a measurable, definable, medical way? With characteristic humility, he said he did not, could not, know. The research about the importance of mindset during a health crisis, as convincing as it is, speaks to what happens in bulk. It does not say what is happening inside one body at a particular point in time.

The lasting benefits of friends

Then he said something that floored me.

“Even if it doesn’t help—even if I die a few years from now—how do I want to spend the last few years of my life?”

As he pedaled, he reviewed the options. He could sit around alone, feeling sorry for himself, sullen and withdrawn, angry at the world, angry at God, jealous of all those people who don’t have cancer. Or he could get outside and bust his rear end with his friends. “To do hard things with a bunch of great men is what I like to do more than anything else,” he says, and by joining us for 50-50-50, he could model the exact kind of man and leader all of us aspire to be.

Even with all that, maybe the cancer will take him anyway.

“At least I’ll be happy,” he said. “Either way, it’s a win.”

As much of a beast as he is, as strong and tough and persistent as he is, that’s only a fraction of what I love and admire about him. If the cancer turns nasty, metastasizes, travels throughout his body, whatever, his resume of 50 marathons, his willingness to hike 50 miles, bike 50 miles and canoe 50 miles, his ability to do pushups until you get bored of counting them, won’t mean squat.

But his friendships will. The love he gives and takes will. They will live on.

The power of friends

Williams’ final radiation treatment came at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, two days after 50-50-50. Before that appointment, he led a 5:30 a.m. workout at a site called The Dawg Pound near his home in suburban St. Louis. Yes, two days after 50-50-50 and an hour and a half before his last radiation treatment, he ran a workout.

A typical workout at The Dawg Pound draws eight men. Sixty-seven of us attended this one. We showed up to help Williams carry his burden, to make sure he knew he was not alone. He helped us share his suffering by dialing up a doozy of a workout, leading us through pushups, burpees, situps and more in sets of multiples of 44—the number of radiation treatments he endured.

Before he rushed off for his final treatment, he called the men into a circle around him. Our hearts were pounding and heavy. So was his. But it was also full to overflowing. He called it one of the best days of his life. He told me repeatedly how gratifying it was to see so many men heaving their chests alongside him. Other than from his family, he had never felt so loved.

He marveled at the change in his friendships since joining F3, in both quality and quantity. As he talked, his hands shook. He had written a beautiful speech, started to read it and spoke instead from his heart, which was even more beautiful. His voice cracked. Men to his right and left put their arms around him, and with their support, he stood tall. 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of John Urhahn.

Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected].