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Family & Relationships

Why Siblings Can Be Good for Our Health and Happiness

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For most of us, our relationships with our siblings will be the longest lasting of our life, spanning more years than our ties to spouses or children, parents, or friends.

Consider that about three in four 70-year-olds have a living sibling.

Our bonds with our brothers and sisters are inescapable. “That’s what makes them so important,” says Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., co-author of the book Adult Sibling Relationships. “If I have friends I don’t like, I can drop them. You can divorce a husband or wife. Siblings are inescapable.”

Sibling relationships are often complicated. For his book, Greif, who’s also a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, did in-depth case studies of 262 people between the ages of 40 and 90 about their relationships with their siblings. “We discovered that, while a lot of siblings have strong and unabated affection for each other,” he says,” for many others there’s a mixed bag of positive and negative emotions. Frequently, there are feelings of ambiguity and ambivalence along with the affection.”

A strong sibling relationship may be well worth fostering because, when these ties are durable, they can have a powerful payoff for our well-being.

“We have data from a lot of studies that shows people with strong, social networks live longer, healthier, and happier lives,” says Greif. “It’s a quick hop, skip, and jump that siblings can be an important part of that large social network.”

Here are four potential benefits of strong sibling ties:

Siblings may nudge us to take care of ourselves.

“Siblings, like friends, can encourage us to get our health checked,” Greif says. “They might say, ‘I had a colonoscopy last week. It wasn’t so bad. You should get one’ or ‘You’ve been losing a lot of weight and you don’t look so well. Why don’t you make an appointment with your doctor?’”

Siblings may inspire us to start healthy habits and shed unhealthy ones.

Global surveys suggest that family and friends have a big impact on our personal health, along with doctors and other professionals. In fact, 43 percent of respondents say that helping others is the greatest motivator influencing their health behavior. That means your sister who asks you to her running club or your brother who piles his plate with vegetables at family dinners just might inspire you to become more fit or more savvy about nutrition.

The underside of this: unhealthy behavior can create distance between loved ones. The same survey found that nearly one third of people with a healthy lifestyle will spend less time with others because of their unhealthy habits.

Siblings may provide a lifetime of emotional support.

Research suggests that, throughout our lifespan, good relationships with siblings contribute to higher life satisfaction, lower rates of depression, stronger psychological well-being and morale, and a greater sense of emotional security in old age. Sibling relationships can help connect our childhood with our adulthood and provide an “anchor in later life,” as one researcher puts it, based on our shared biography and memories.

Strong sibling relationships are a legacy for the next generation.

“If you have close relationships with your siblings, that’s a powerful intergenerational message and model for your own children that can help maintain strong family ties,” Greif says.

It’s never too late to repair fractured sibling ties. “No one is ever doomed to replay the past,” Greif says. “Start by accepting that mixed feelings – good and bad – are a part of the relationship and that you and your siblings might have different views of what you want. Then, try to find a connection that goes beyond the past.” Instead of replaying old grudges with a brother or sister, explore current interests and what’s going on in his or her life today.

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