I just read an interview on NPR with Lydia Denworth, author of a book on friendship. Denworth says I should work as hard at friendship as I do at working out or eating right. Why? Because research shows that having close friendships plays an important role in my health.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about friendship because my daughter, who is about to be 12, doesn’t seem to have any friends. She comes home almost every day with a sob story about how she sits alone at lunch, how no one wants her in their group, how this person or that person has betrayed her, doesn’t like her, makes fun of her. I worry about my girl so much. She is adopted, she has a history of significant trauma, and she was exposed to oxycontin (and who knows what else) in the womb. I’ll be brutally honest here as well, she is shaped like an adorable little beach ball, and she likes her hair short. She gets called “fat” and she is frequently mistaken for a boy. Top all of that off with her brain, which is round where mine is square and loopy where mine is linear. Her thought processes confound and amaze me, so I am 100% sure she confuses the 11 year-old-girls she is trying to communicate with.
I’ve told her, “One of these days, someone is going to come along who gets you, who loves you for who you are. That person is going to be so special. You may have to wait, but you will find her.” But until that day comes…what do I do? She’s part of a small group of kids with similar issues who are now meeting once a week to learn how to make friends. I give her tips on how to handle bullies: yawn, stretch, walk away, laugh, say something kind. I’ve told her, “When those girls are mean to you, just say ‘thank you for making me stronger.’” Or how about the old tried and true, “I’m rubber and you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” And I also try to coach her on friendship skills: listen, ask questions, don’t boast, be yourself, don’t try so hard, but how do you tell an eleven-year-old not to be so…needy? And at the end of the day, after she’s asleep in bed, I cry sometimes, and I worry. I worry because I don’t want her to be lonely, or to fall for the first guy that pays her some attention.
My husband doesn’t worry. He believes in her. He tells me, “She’s going to be fine. She’s amazing (we agree on that point). Stop worrying (ha!).” He also pointed out something to me that was right in front of me - something I just couldn’t see. My daughter does have a friend - her sister. My biological daughter is one-and-a-half years younger than my adopted daughter, but they are the bestest of buddies. How could I have missed that? And all you need is ONE.
What is a friend? A person one has an emotional bond with (thank you, dictionary). The definition also says we aren’t in sexual relationships with friends, and they aren’t typically relatives. But are those definitions important? How about defining friendship by how it makes you feel: good, positive, full of warm fuzzies. Friendships are long-lasting and stable. There is cooperation and reciprocity between friends. I think that can happen with your spouse, your sister or any other relative. According to the NPR article, “What matters is the quality of the bond, not its origin.”
Friendship and Gender
Sally: So you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail 'em too.
Sally: What if they don't want to have sex with you?
Harry: Doesn't matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Sally: Well, I guess we're not going to be friends then.
Harry: Guess not.
Sally: That's too bad. You were the only person that I knew in New York.
Remember When Harry Met Sally? Whether you agree or disagree, there’s no arguing that men and women tend to handle friendship differently. According to Denworth, women do friendship face-to-face; we talk out our problems. Men do relationships side-by-side. They do things together. Again, I’m not sure that really matters. What does matter is that men and women value friendship in the same way. There are more similarities than differences. It’s not just men and women making the odd friendship pair. I’m sure you’ve seen the videos of horses and cats making friends. There’s even one of a tiger with a pig:
Apparently horses, zebras, hyenas, vampire bats, birds and even fish can form social relationships. Humans, however, we do it in a much more complex way.
Two Peas in a Pod?
The average number of very close relationships is four. In the NPR article, Denworth says that few people can sustain more than six very close relationships.
People tend to choose friends who are much like themselves. We choose those of similar age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, educational level and political stance. Researchers at Princeton used fMRI to track the blood flow in the brains of subjects who watched a wide variety of videos. They found revealing patterns in the nucleus accumbens (in the lower forebrain) and in the superior parietal lobule. In other words, the brains of close friends respond in similar ways, with the same ebb and flow of attention, distraction and boredom. In fact, researchers were able to predict the strength of two people’s bond based on their brain scan. Just like with a love interest, friendship is about good Chemistry.
Friends with (Health) Benefits
Social relationships can improve the cardiovascular and immune systems, how well you sleep and even your mental health. Research has even shown that people with strong social ties have lower concentrations of fibrinogen, a protein associated with chronic inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and even periodontal disease. A 2010 meta-analysis of 148 different research studies found that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.”
There is evidence that a lack of friends is poisonous to your health. Studies have correlated a weak social network with depression, cognitive decline, poor wound healing, and delayed cancer recovery. Loneliness takes a physical and emotional toll similar to risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, unemployment, lack of exercise and smoking cigarettes. I should know, I was friendless for over 15 years. It. Was. Horrible. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I would watch Friends and cry instead of laugh. I tried. I got out there, but I couldn’t crack the code. And then one day, I met my best friend. My boyfriend introduced me to the wife of a local shop owner, and we’ve been like salt and pepper ever since.
Should We Be Friends with Coworkers?
I’ve been invited to social events outside of work many times, and I always decline, though studies show that having friends at work can increase job satisfaction, performance and productivity according to CNN business. I like to be friendly with coworkers, but I need those boundaries in place. I also don’t make friends with my neighbors – same issues, right? If it doesn’t work out, are you going to move? Change jobs? Being friends with coworkers can be problematic if you are in competition for the same position, bonus or raise. You have to be careful who to trust as well. If you share personal details and then they “get out” it can damage not only your feelings, but also your career prospects. What about being friends with a coworker who is not a top performer? That could reflect negatively on you. Or what about work friends who are negative and take venting to a chronic level.
The Best Way to Have a Good Friend is to Be One…
There’s lots of advice out there for how to make friends. I found these seven guidelines for creating friendship:
Take a genuine interest in others
Get Out There and Make It Happen
So maybe let’s stop taking friendship for granted. Let’s find safety in numbers. When you say, “Let’s get together sometime.” Pull out your calendar and make a date. Instead of feeling guilty when a friend asks you to do something, stop thinking about how your family needs you and remind yourself that you’re doing it for your health. Prioritizing friendship is incredibly important. It can prevent you from getting sick and help you live longer. As you walk out the door on your way to a girl’s night out, waving to your kids as they fuss at the babysitter, tell yourself that you’re doing it for them.
What do you think? Do you have lots of friends or one really good one? Do you think men and women can be friends? How about coworkers? What makes a good friend? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories – please share!