Mar 04

Friendship: Needed for Good Overall Health

On average, people have only four very close relationships, Denworth finds, and very few people can sustain more than six. But the effect of these few core relationships extends beyond our social lives, influencing our health on the cellular level — from our immune system to our cardiovascular system. Elena Renken, NPR, regarding Lydia Denworth‘s  Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond

Friendship is vital to our well-being, a fact often underappreciated, states Lydia Denworth in her new book. “Her focus ranges from animal behavior to neurobiology and from sociology to psychology and physiology,” according to Publishers Weekly. “After speaking with many leading researchers, Denworth draws several striking conclusions—notably that, having been found in an extensive variety of species, friendship has deep evolutionary roots.”

More, from Kirkus Reviews:

The evidence from brain scans, genetic studies, and other physiological data underscores how social connectivity has been built into our systems; we demonstrate a ‘need to belong.’ Denworth traces this need over the lifetime…Of special interest is a second major growth spurt in the brain that occurs during puberty and features rapid growth in the emotional sections of the brain. At this time, scans show that the mere presence of peers lights up reward areas of the brain—a possible spur to impulsivity and risk-taking. (Most teenage driving accidents happen when friends are in the car and not when the driver is alone.) The author also discusses social networks and social media (not likely to replace face-to-face friendships). In addition to examining the scientific underpinnings of friendship, Denworth capably demonstrates how loneliness, an increasing hazard as Americans age and lose friends and family, is truly a health- and life-threatening condition, and there are things to be done to avoid it.

Following are several quotes from Denworth’s interview with NPR:

Very few people understand that your social relationships can actually change your health. They can change your cardiovascular system, your immune system, how you sleep, your cognitive health.

…(I)t is actually a matter of life and death. And there’s this evolutionary drive to connect. People think all the time about competition and survival of the fittest, but really it’s survival of the friendliest.

What has been surprising to evolutionary biologists is just how much friendship exists across species. They have found something that looks like friendship in dolphins, and elephants, and horses, and zebras, and hyenas and all kinds of species. Even fish…

I think of friendship now as a template for all your relationships, because if you think about the sort of basic definition of friendship — it makes you feel good, it’s positive, a long-lasting stable relationship, and it has some cooperation and reciprocity to it — that’s what you want to be striving for in your closest relationships.

The standard line is that women do friendship face-to-face and men do it side by side, meaning women spend their time talking and men do things together. And there’s truth to that, but when you ask men how much they value friendship, their answers are the same, for the most part.