Why Friendship is More Important than Ever

Scientists have discovered that friends aren’t just nice to have around, they’re a biological necessity. Here’s why you should be prioritizing that virtual happy hour now.

By Katherine Lanpher
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“Friendship is all about being there in a crisis, which is exactly where we are now,” says Lydia Denworth, the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, a new book on the science behind those people who make up our “chosen” family. A seasoned science journalist, Denworth interviewed animal biologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists to understand how good friendships can not only bolster our emotional health, but our physical health as well. We caught up with Denworth in quarantine with her husband and three sons on their farm in upstate New York.

Please tell us why friendship is more important than ever right now

Denworth: We need our friends now more than ever. In general, people come together in a crisis. Of course, that’s exactly what we’re not supposed to do right now. That’s why we’re seeing such an outpouring, such creative energy designed to help us figure out ways to connect. And because we have so much digital technology and social media at our fingertips, it’s possible in a way it never would have been before. Friends are there to quell the anxiety; they’re a metaphorical shoulder to cry on, but also to help you laugh. When our friends send a funny video or a joke, it makes us smile. And that’s a little bit of goodness in your day you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

How is friendship physically good for us?

Denworth: Friendship is as important for our health as diet and exercise. It affects, your heart, your blood pressure, your cardiovascular functioning, your immune functioning, your cognitive health, your mental health, your stress response, the rate at which you age, and your longevity.

Is social media good for friendship during Coronavirus quarantine?

Denworth: We’ve rewritten the script on social media really quickly here. Partly because we had to — right? — and because desperate times call for desperate measures. There is some new science showing social media in general, on a population level, is not nearly as bad for us as we’ve been led to believe. The larger point is that there are some positives…what they have been finding is that if you use social media as one of your channels to connect with friends then it strengthens those bonds.

Plum: Now technology is all we have.

Denworth: It’s been asked to do more than it really should. And we do need to make sure we go back to our face-to-face interactions when this is all over. I know some people worry that this will become the new normal, that everyone will think they can do everything on social media. I don’t think that’s the case. There’s a difference between our actual closest friends and our Facebook friends, that’s why we use the phrase Facebook friends. That won’t have changed when this is all over. Those very close friends — I think we will fall into each other’s arms with joy, frankly. You know, after we wash our hands.

Those very close friends — I think we will fall into each other’s arms with joy, frankly. You know, after we wash our hands.

Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond

In the era of Coronavirus, has friendship become a health issue?

Denworth: It’s an urgent public health issue! We think we know it. We think we appreciate it. And on some levels, we do, but there’s a whole lot that we don’t understand … we haven’t traditionally prioritized it in the way we need to for our health. I hope that what people take from this is not that this is something else to add to your “to-do” list in a way that feels like a burden, but that it’s permission to hang out with your friends. Like, you know, a night out with my girlfriends is like going to the gym.

How are we biologically built for friendship?

Denworth: Neuroscientists have really only in the last 10 to 20 years begun to appreciate how much of the brain is about our social life. At first, people were thinking a lot about all the sensory stuff, your vision, your hearing, that part of your brain. But now they’re also focused on what it means to be social.

What happens is that loneliness is a biological warning bell. And it’s telling us that we need to connect, just like a hunger pang makes you eat.

What can animal friendships in the wild tell us about our own friendships?

Denworth: Some of the animals I cover extensively in the book include baboons and rhesus macaques (monkeys). The primates with the strongest social bonds live the longest and have more and healthier babies. Longevity and reproductive success is about as good as you can do in evolutionary terms. And the thing that mattered the most was how socially connected they were, not in a hierarchical way, but in terms of a quality bond.

Why is friendship critical for people in their 40s and older?

Denworth: Because the biggest predictor of how healthy you will be at 80 is your satisfaction with your relationships at 50. And while it is true we have a little less time to devote to it in the middle of life, it should never disappear as a priority.

So, in the end, are friendships as important as face masks and bleach to get us through all of this?

Denworth: You have to take care of your immediate surroundings. But you have to take care of your mental and physical health too. And you do that by making sure that you have social connections. Every mental health professional that I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks says that social support and connection are one of the critical things that’s going to get people through this.

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