The importance of friendship
Buddies, pals, mates – there are many names for friends. I wonder if we sometimes underestimate the importance of friendship to our happiness, emotional well-being and physical health. Yes, you read the last two words correctly – physical health, something we usually associate with exercise! New research shows that neglecting to spend time with friends can have a surprising effect on us, according to Lydia Denworth, author of the recently published book “Friendship.” Friends, she says, are “crucial to our very survival.” Ms. Denworth interviewed animal biologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists to help determine the importance of friendship.
Social bonds and friendships
Evolutionary biologists study reproductive success in animals, i.e., how many babies are born and survive as well as how long the mother lives. In the past, scientists studying nonhuman primates assumed that the rigid structural hierarchies found in these groups were a critical factor in how long an animal lived. But they were wrong, it turns out. Surprisingly, the key factor was how positively and regularly animals interact with one another – their social bonds! By now, you must be wondering how friendship can affect your physical health. Having a chat with a good friend about life strengthens your cardiovascular system, boosts your immune system and improves your sleep. According to a comprehensive Harvard study of men between the ages of 20 and 80, it wasn’t money or success that was the best predictor of health and happiness, but your relationships at 50.
My “big five”
I have many friends in my life, but there are a selected few who make up what I call my “big five.” I’ve known each of these for more than 50 years. Two were friendships made in school, while three were friendships forged through the adversity of completing Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) together. We haven’t always been in touch with one another, but we’ve always been there for each other when needed. We’ve had arguments and in some cases, fistfights, but the friendship has remained. I know I can always rely on my big five when things “go south,” as they invariably do at some point in life. As in many other areas, quality is much more important than quantity. In fact, most people only have an average of four very close friends, most of whom we meet in our 20s, which are prime years for meeting our closest life-long friends.
Why this person but not another?
It’s a bit like romance; we share the same interests, tastes and worldviews. In fact, we tend to become better friends with people who are more like us. Sharing the same worldview turns out to be very important. In one experiment, scientists were able to predict who were friends in a social network by showing them videos and monitoring how their brains responded to what they watched. But why is it that we’re attracted to certain people, and what makes them attractive to us? There are five main factors according to Dr Claire Hart, a psychology professor at the University of Southampton: proximity (how near you are to someone and how often you see them), similarity (how like you they are), reciprocity (we’re more likely to like people who like us), physical attractiveness (are they pleasant to look at?) and familiarity (we like people who seem comfortable to us).
I have gained a lot of friends through social media, most of whom I’ve never met in person. I think this is great. I now interact with people from different places and cultures. And surprisingly (to me at least), some of them are willing to share their problems online, which gives me a much more diverse social network than I would otherwise have. I gain new insights and views that I would not get from those with whom I usually associate. But even better, the advent of social media has made it possible to stay in touch with my big five, who are dispersed around the world today. Obviously, this new channel won’t give us the health benefits that extensive face-to-face time does. And there is a risk that people who’re already suffering from depression or loneliness may experience some adverse effects. Still, when you’re engaging in intense face-to-face conversations about what’s really going on in your life and how you feel about it, you’re showing that person that you care about them and value them enough to spend some time listening.
Sometimes we might wonder why we bother because friends can challenge us, confuse us and even make us angry. But friendships help us grow throughout our lives. They teach us how to be patient, wait our turn, reach out, try new things, take responsibility, find careers and mentors. They help us learn to weather the ups and downs in life and provide an essential sounding board to help us make decisions. They can also show us how to forgive, laugh, and make conversation. In fact, most relationships – from professional to romantic – are founded in friendship. I, for one, would certainly hate to be without friends. That would be a fate far worse than death, in my opinion. When you’re done reading this, touch base with your closest friend to see how she or he is doing.