Friendship – We Get by with a Little Help…
By Ronnie Biemans, Dec 16 2016 05:10PM
The Poetry and Science of Friendship
With a Little Help from Our Friends
What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you're on your own?
No, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, gonna try with a little help from my friends.
- The Beatles
When Valentine’s Day approaches most of us think about romantic love, and overlook our friends, those people who have sustained us through good times and bad, oftentimes for many more years than our lovers or spouses. Friendship is seldom fussed over during the various holidays marked with Hallmark cards. Yet where would we be without our friends? Research supports the importance of friendship to longevity, resilience, and health. The arts have captured the beauty and importance of friendship to happiness and survival for centuries. I have recently been exploring the meaning of friendship in our lives.
Friendship as Poetry
Over the holiday season I read My Brilliant Friend written by Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a series called the Neapolitan Novels. This first book captures the early days of friendship between Elena and Lila, from girlhood to adolescence; two young girls growing up in a hard-scrabble Naples neighborhood. Their relationship is fraught with jealousy and envy as they compete in school to be viewed as accomplished, one of the few ways girls were allowed to break out and excel. Elena longs to be like Lila and envies her every accomplishment for many years, unable to see her own ability and beauty. Their relationship is intense and filled with passion, illustrated in their conflicts as well as their closer moments. At first I was unimpressed with the story line but I soon came to appreciate the intensity of early friendships that endure for a lifetime. As children, we have such passion for our friends and what happens in those early relationships profoundly influences our happiness. Ferrante brilliantly captures the angst and intense feelings that accompany the inevitable ups and downs of Elena and Lila’s girlhood intimacies as they struggle to assert themselves as individuals in their families and community. There is nothing worse than the loss of a friendship through betrayal and nothing better than regaining friendship after such a loss. I had forgotten the intensity and passion of childhood friendship. I still remember many of my friends from parochial school days and all the wonder and treachery that were a part of our time together. How soon we forget the importance of those early relationships.
In her novel, Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett beautifully describes her deep friendship with writer Lucinda Grealey, who passed away in 2002 of a drug overdose. They met later in life, during college, and became close friends at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Their friendship continued for another 20 years, a deeply committed roller coaster ride that evolved as both of them wrote and loved and partied and became famous. Grealey became known for her acclaimed memoir Autobiography of a Face, which describes her survival from childhood cancer and the radical surgeries that disfigured her face and caused her terrible pain and suffering. Patchett wrote several books during this time period, also quite successfully. They became close and weathered Grealey’s numerous health crises and surgeries together while also enjoying the swirl of life of young women making their way in the world. Grealey, although tiny and frail, was a force to be reckoned with. She had tremendous passion for life and attacked life with an effervescent spirit that bonded her with Patchett. If Grealey had survived her addictions, I have no doubt that the two of them would enjoy a friendship into old age. I can imagine them, gray haired and wrinkled, sitting on the front porch with a cup of tea, regaling one another with tales of their youth. Patchett captures the depth of their relationship this way: “ I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first. I felt I had been chosen by Lucy and I was thrilled.”
In childhood and later into adulthood our best friendships sustain, enervate and support us. We know this intuitively and have a strong drive to pursue this connection. Just as poetry is literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas, I’d say that friendship is life work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas. Friendship is life poetry, sheer poetry.
What Science tells us About Friendship
The benefits of friendship have been studied extensively. Over the past decade research has revealed the positive effects of social connection on stress mitigation, resilience, health and longevity effects.
1. There is a unique stress calming response in women that influences the drive to form friendships.
Results from a 2002 study at UCLA uncovered a unique “tend-and-befriend” stress response that is initiated by the release of oxytocin in women. Women respond to stress with a release of brain chemicals that cause them to make and maintain friendships with other women. Before these results were published, most scientists believed that when people experience stress, hormones are released that trigger the response commonly know as fight-or-flight. While this is true, most studies were done with male subjects. Researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight-or-flight. UCLA researchers believe that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight-or-flight response and motivates her to gather with other women instead. When she engages in this “tending or befriending,” studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, say the researchers, because testosterone, which men produce in high levels when they're under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin
2. Social connections affect longevity
Researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pooled data from 148 studies on health outcomes and social relationships, involving more than 300,000 men and women, and found that those with poor social connections had on average 50% higher odds of death in the study's follow-up period (an average of 7.5 years) than people with more robust social ties. This boost in longevity is about as large as the mortality difference observed between smokers and nonsmokers, and it is larger than differences in the risk of death associated with many other well-known lifestyle factors, including lack of exercise and obesity. "This is not just a few studies here and there," says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lead author on the review and an associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. "I'm hoping there will be recognition from the medical community, the public-health community, and even the general public about the importance of this.”
Another 10- year longitudinal longevity study in Australia (1992 to 2002) found that close relationships with children and relatives had little effect on longevity rates for older people followed during the 10-year study but people with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent. The positive effects of friendships on longevity continued throughout the decade that the subjects were assessed, regardless of other profound life changes such as the death of a spouse or other close family members.
3. Social connections affect the immune response and resistance to the common cold
In one of the most famous experiments on health and social life, Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University exposed hundreds of healthy volunteers to the common cold virus, then quarantined them for several days. Cohen showed that the study participants with more social connections and with more diverse social networks — that is, with friends from a variety of social contexts, such as work, sports teams, and church — were less likely to develop a cold than the more socially isolated study participants. The immune systems of people with lots of friends simply worked better, fighting off the cold virus often without symptoms. Studies suggest that the immune response is affected by stress hormones. So a strong social life may affect immune function by helping people keep physiological stress in check.
4. Social connections and friendship affect illness and resiliency
Research at Harvard University has shown in a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer that those with no friendship network are four times more likely to die from the disease than those with ten or more close friends.
5. Friendship reduces physical impairment in aging.
The Harvard University Nurses' Health Studies are among the largest and longest running investigations of factors that influence women’s health. Started in 1976, the information provided by over 200,000 nurse-participants has led to many new insights on health and disease. Amongst a myriad of other significant health findings, the studies found that the more friends subjects had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.
Building Friendship Circles
How do we develop and sustain friendships over time? Ask yourself, how fulfilling are my friendships? If you decide that you’d like to improve the quality of your relationships and seek ways to develop deep, long-lasting friendships consider the following:
• Intentionally develop a network of supportive friendships
• Share yourself with others
• Be curious about others
• Give of yourself
• Develop a tolerance for difference
• Focus on the positive
I remember the friendship song that my mother taught my sisters and me when we were young girls. We would sing the song in rounds on family car trips. It’s about the value of old and new relationships and says: “Make new friends and keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Though always open to new friendships, I do value and devote time to keeping my long-term friendships alive. My over-20-year friendship with Greek Athena has evolved into a fabulous travel partnership. When Athena recovered from a serious illness in 2005, we went to London. In 2014, we went to China and Inner Mongolia and had the adventure of a lifetime. In between big trips we take shorter excursions and indulge in our passion for photography. I also spend time with my “dharma sisters,” with whom I share an ongoing meditation practice. With other friends, I enjoy annual Christmas bake-a-thons, gym-buddy days, and mountain hikes. Sometimes, we invite our significant others to join us for food-enthusiast dinners. Enjoying one another and doing things together that we enjoy, as well as listening to one another’s worries and woes, are all part and parcel of keeping our friendships alive.
About the Author:
Informed by over 25 years of professional training and work experience as well as her many years of meditation and yoga practice, Ronnie Biemans, M.A., L.C.P.C., is guided by a core philosophy to focus on strengths, not deficits or pathology. By discovering, restoring and optimizing each person’s unique ability to thrive and meet the demands, of today’s fast-paced, stressful world, those who have encountered physical and emotional health challenges can discover ways to improve their lives and well being. Operating from her home office and in other community settings, Ronnie provides guidance and support to individuals, families and groups seeking to live healthy, balanced lives.