March 17, 2021

Episode 6: Friendship


After a year of social distancing and isolation, the power and value of our friendships has never been more appreciated. And what's really come into focus is that healthy social connections is one of the best antidotes to loneliness. However, there's a deeper, evolutionary reason behind this longing to see our friends in-person again: face-to-face interactions with a few dear pals actually produces a surge of good hormones that makes us feel happy and less lonely, while boosting our immune systems and staving off viruses and even mental decline. 

Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and author of the book, "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond," helps explain the science behind the life enhancing role of social connection. Sharing human stories and research findings, she brings to life the benefits of friendships. We learn, for instance, that the quality of a few meaningful relationships is more important when predicting mortality rates and happiness in old age than income, education or even cholesterol levels.

Ms. Denworth also reminds us that hanging out with friends should never be optional or something that's squeezed in between work and family obligations. Make socializing a priority, she advises, because when we get together with our close buddies, we're doing something fundamentally important -- something that's good for our health and for the health of our friends.

Links

Lydia Denworth

Friendship: the Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond.

University of Kansas research

The Harvard Study of Adult Development

Up Documentary Series

John Cacioppo

AARP survey on the cost of loneliness

Guest Info

Lydia Denworth is a science journalist and speaker. She is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of three books of popular science, including Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. Adam Grant called Friendship one of the top 20 leadership books of 2020 and Booklist called it “the best of science writing.” Lydia’s work has also appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Psychology Today and many other publications. 

 www.lydiadenworth.com 

 @LydiaDenworth. 

 (Photo credit: Jessica Barthel.)

Transcript

[MUSIC]

 

Jeremy (00:00):

Hello again, "Is Anybody Out There?" Listeners. Welcome back to our podcast about loneliness, brought to you by the Connectery. I'm Jeremy Warshaw.

 

Judy (00:16):

And I'm Judy D'Mello.

 

Jeremy (00:26):

I want to know something. Judy, what does true friendship mean to you?

 

Judy (00:31):

Well, I think of you as a really true friend. And I think of true friendship as a whole-hearted investment. Something that I'm 100% emotionally committed to, not something that's just squeezed into these vacant gaps in my life. It's definitely not something that exists on social media, not for me anyway. You know, when I look back at my 20s, 30s, and perhaps some of my 40s, I don't think I truly appreciated or stopped to think about the value of my really close friends. Back then, friendships felt mostly transactional, something I attended to in between work, marriage, motherhood, traveling, going to the gym or whatever. And it's only in the last 10 years, I'd say that I've come to treasure this unspoken bond I have with just a few people. Like you, Jeremy. And Josephine, my dearest friend in London. And the ladies -- you know who you are. When I'm around you lot, which is tough during this damn pandemic, and laugh and we catch up, I actually experience a surge of those good hormones. And I'm very aware of this rush of happiness that I feel when I'm with you and these particular friends, because it's not there when, say, I grab a cup of coffee with a work colleague or somebody who's more of a casual acquaintance. So, I just want to say that whilst in the popular narrative out there, love gets all the headlines, I think friendship -- a true, meaningful, beautiful friendship -- is really the bigger story.

 

Jeremy (02:25):

I'll raise my glass to that. That was beautiful. And, um, it's good to know, t's only taken 30 years for you to say that you value me. Well, if you haven't already guessed, today's episode is called friendship. And the reason it belongs in a podcast about loneliness is because research has shown that friendship is not only a cornerstone of a healthy social life, but also a true antidote to loneliness. Studies have shown that having the safety net of supportive friends in middle and old age is a stronger predictor of wellbeing than family ties and even cholesterol levels. I came across some of this research in a really terrific book by Lydia Denworth and the book was called “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond.” After reading this book, I knew I had to try and get Lydia to speak on our podcast. So, I reached out to her about three or four times. Didn't hear back. And I can hardly blame her, because we weren't even an ongoing podcast. In the end, I sent her a photo of myself holding her book. Yeah, it did the trick, but by incorporating into an email, the visual cue of my face, even my face, and her book, it broke through the limitations of an email. And it turned me from just a name on the signature line to a friendly and sincere human. Anyway, here's my conversation that followed:

 

Jeremy (03:50):

I have the great honor of talking to Lydia Denworth, who in my view, and it seems the view of many others, has written the definitive book on Friendship. To quote the book's cover, it's about the “evolution, biology and power of life's fundamental bond.” And you'll be glad to know it's not a dry academic tome, but a journalistic discovery of the science behind the life enhancing role of social connection. Fortunately, you don't have to be a science nerd, which is good as far as I'm concerned. So I want to just start with the definition of friendship or a friend.

 

Lydia (04:22):

So at a minimum, a friendship is really the positive bond that exists between two individuals. And that has a minimum of three characteristics. It is usually long lasting, so it's stable, it's positive. It makes both people feel good or both individuals feel good and it's cooperative.

 

Jeremy (04:43):

Well, that's a fabulous definition. Um, presumably there are a number of hours that are involved in probably getting to the stage of a certain level of friendship and then even more hours for a close connected friend.

 

Lydia (04:55):

So this gets at the idea that friendship takes time. And on some levels we know that, but we don't fully appreciate just how much time it takes. And so a researcher at the University of Kansas actually counted up the amount of time that people reported it took them to become friends with new people they'd met. And so, it was about 50 hours to go from being an acquaintance to a casual friend, roughly 90 hours to consider someone a good friend and yes, a full 200 hours of togetherness to consider someone a best friend.

 

Jeremy (05:32):

Well, this is good. Cause I'm going to keep note of how many minutes we can talk and start getting into the account. Um, so what's the most compelling, scientific evidence that you came across that illustrates how social connection impacts your physical and psychological health from all the ones that you gave us access to?

 

Lydia (05:51):

Oh my goodness. You're right. There are so many that it's hard to pick out. Um, just one, I did make a point in the book of kind of hitting the, the greatest hits in the history of this science. So, so I'll say a few things. The work that's been done in other species, in baboons, in Africa. In the book, I spend time in Kenya and Amboseli where there are a whole bunch of researchers who follow the lives of baboons for whole generations. And well, the work in other animals has been really important to changing the way we think of friendship and to helping us understand that there is this deep seated biology to it and that it is part of our evolutionary story. And so it made us realize that friendship is not just cultural. It is these other things, it's biological and evolutionary. And that is the fundamental point of my whole book. And so I think I have to give the monkey some credit and there is multiple monkey studies, but that work in the baboons in Africa is, was critical.

 

Jeremy (06:55):

Well, my favorite was the Harvard study and I just thought that it had a great conclusion. Would you be able to talk to that?

 

Lydia (07:03):

Yeah. The study at Harvard was set up early in the 20th century and initially it took a bunch of students from Harvard, but then they added in some young men from inner city Boston as well. So the upshot was more than 700 men who were in their teens or early twenties when this study began and it followed them for their entire lives. Uh, so obviously the sets of researchers who were running it changed over time, but, um, the idea was to collect information and to see if you could establish what it took to live a good life.

 

Jeremy (07:46):

What do we know now, especially in the field of relationships, without any doubt, after all this research?

 

Lydia (07:53):

What it has shown us is just how much relationships matter to living a good and healthy life and a happy life. Um, it, I mean the, so the current research actually looks at the subsequent generations of the first, um, people in this study, but what it found was that, um, when the, when people got to 80, they were able to go back and look at all the information they had gathered about their lives early on. And what they found was that if you went back to when people were 50 and you tried to predict who was going to be a healthy 80 year old, what mattered was not their cholesterol levels or their wealth, their professional success, it was how satisfied they were with their relationship.

 

Jeremy (08:41):

Um, how has that impacted your own view? Has it changed your view about how to nurture relationships to maybe stress less about work and the things that ultimately don't determine a happy, healthy life so much?

 

Lydia (08:56):

Yes. It gives us all permission to hang out with our friends and to know that we are doing something good for our health and good for our friends' health. And I think before it was always a little bit more of a guilty pleasure that was taking you away from family and work. And, um, you know, we've always known that it's pleasurable, but the fact that it's really good for us, I think, um, just gives us sort of extra oomph to the whole idea of friendship. And, and I think it also helps to remind us that, so on one hand you can feel good about it, but also you should push yourself a little bit to hang out with your friends and to make contact with your friends. I mean, during the pandemic, of course you can't hang out in traditional ways. You know? So, um, I mean it, in the broadest sense right now, but this pandemic will end and we will go back to seeing our friends in the ways that we did. And when we do, I hope that we don't lose sight of this deeply important connection that it gives us. And, um, and that it is sustaining in every way.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Jeremy (10:07):

I found the Harvard study, which has been going on for over 80 years, probably the longest study of adult life ever done--

 

Judy (10:13):

Like that documentary film series “Up,” which began following a group of seven-year-olds in England all the way to age 63.

 

Jeremy (10:21):

Exactly. These long-term tracking studies are so revealing about humanity, especially in terms of physical and mental wellbeing. I was really moved by this study. Because our focus in the West is mostly on fortune, fame and career success. And those things are important of course, but what the Harvard study proves is that they're not as important as a few meaningful relationships we have with dear people. True happiness, especially in our later years, comes from staying connected to friends, family, and your community.

 

Judy (10:51):

And what was really revelatory was that having those meaningful connections actually helped to delay mental and physical decline regardless of these men's social class, education levels or even gene pool. Amazing.

 

Jeremy (11:07):

Let's get back to my interview with Lydia Denworth who wrote the book, “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond.” In this section of our conversation, we really focused on the ties between friendship and loneliness.

 

Jeremy (11:28):

The research, a finding that I thought was different, but very, very interesting was the Cacioppo and Cole work on gene expression research. It's probably the most science-y because it's got difficult words like leukocytes. But it plays into the area that I'm particularly interested in about, you can measure, it would seem, lonely versus non lonely.

 

Lydia (11:54):

Yes, John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, who died relatively young, sadly, but he did pioneering work on loneliness. And what he did was help to show the physical toll that loneliness took on the body. Um, and some other researchers showed that if you are really lonely, that there is an effect right down to the level of your leukocytes, which are part of your immune system. Basically, the lonelier you are, you are more susceptible to inflammation and to viruses. And then at the other end of the scale, people who were the least lonely or the most connected socially were more resilient to inflammation and viruses. And it was a fascinating way of showing that the body is physically responding to this social relationship. And that's the thing that nobody ever thought was happening before.

 

Jeremy (12:48):

As you were reading this, uh, research and digging into it and thinking about your own social life, what was the thing that stood out to you the most about the value of friendships, taking it away from the scientific to the anecdotal and how important that's been in your life?

 

Lydia (13:06):

The quick takeaway here is that friendship is as important as diet and exercise in our lives. But what that means to me is that too often, we think of our friends as, as, as lovely and enjoyable parts of our lives, as you say, but as optional, I guess. You know, they, they tend to fall down the list of priority because at first you feel you have to get your work done and then you have to spend time with your family, should you have one. And then you spend time with your friends. So that means that they're often the thing that you give up on or you cancel or you, you know, and I've now come to think, and I am trying to live it. I try to walk the walk, now that I've written the book that says, this is what you should do. And I think, you know, the thing is, it feels like it's so fun that you think, well, this can't be good for me. Right? You know. Where's the pain?! But happily, you're really are doing something fundamentally important for your health by spending time with your friends. And, and so we should, we should give friends the respect that they're due, in our time, and our calendars, in our day-to-day life. You don't have to feel so guilty.

 

Jeremy (14:18):

I think that you talked about a research project where I think friends came in to a lab and was subjected to shocks on the ankle while holding the hands of friends or alternatively strangers. And I sort of paired that up with the study of baboons, um, you know, the importance of social connections where I, I don't know if this is empathy so much as just sort of, uh, sort of, um, a group dynamic that comes about from trying to protect people in the group.

 

Lydia (14:44):

So yes, it's been shown now in many ways that the presence of a friend and in the lab, it's true that if you, if you were getting shocked and you're holding somebody's hand, you feel less stress and pain. Um, if you're holding the hand of a friend and, uh, what they think is that this form of touch really does contribute to the way our social brains are wired up when we're babies, because it's one of the very first things that happens is that we experienced this touch and we experience it as pleasant. Hopefully, we get it. We get cuddled by our mothers, usually right from the get-go, from the minute we're born. But yes, it extends all the way to the way that good friends pat each other, or there was a wonderful study of NBA basketball players. And what they found is that a team of players who touch each other more, that would be like the high fives and the pat on the shoulder or the, you know, the chest bumps when somebody dunks the ball or whatever it is, they tend to win more.

 

Lydia (15:47):

And so this kind of affective touch is really good for us. It's a bonding mechanism. And so monkeys do it when they groom. Grooming is gold for monkeys. It sends oxytocin and the happy hormones. And really interesting among chimpanzees. They found being groomed by another chimpanzee that you consider a close pal, um, makes you feel even better than being groomed by any old chimpanzee. Um, so there are differences in the, in the status, but in humans, we do have a version of grooming. It's everything we do to make each other feel good and to sort of signal the way we care about each other and it's touching it is touching, but I think it's more than that. It's laughter and storytelling and other things too, that we do that deepen our bond.

 

Jeremy (16:51):

There's something fundamental I know from the work I've done on interviewing, uh, and, and the research into that, there is a very important element that you are made to feel you matter, and the best, I guess, interviewers and the best communicators are the ones that not as a technique or as a sort of a strategy, but just in their bones, they can't help connecting with you in a way that makes you feel listened, to attended to, that you matter that you, you are valid that you exist in a way it's a kind of existential thing. You know, you, you are not alone.

 

Lydia (17:25):

And I think that's one of the really important things friends do for each other is they listen, they pay attention, they show up and they, they care. So the very act of asking someone to catch you up on what's going on in their life, when you see each other again, is you saying that it matters to you to hear and that you're willing to give it some time. And, you know, I think that that is what friends do for each other. The best relationships are reciprocal and cooperative, so that there's a back and forth and it's not too lopsided, right?

 

Jeremy (17:56):

Yeah. This brings me back to the end point that I wanted to make, but I want to know your point of view on this. I feel that the only way a Western capitalist country can really thrive is if it applies far greater, and builds into its policymaking, connection, which is a very, I suppose, nebulous concept at a sort of a government level. But connection seems to me to be the one central aspect that should drive policy and determine, you know, legislation to a large extent. What's your point of view having written this book and lived with it for as long as you have, having your own points of view? What do you think about connection's role, other than just appreciating it and enjoying it on an individual basis; higher up the food chain as part of policy, if it was at all possible?

 

Lydia (18:46):

I think you're right. I think policy makers should really pay attention. And I think that loneliness on the one end and friendship and connection on the other are a public health issue. And we know now in the time of COVID just how critical public health is, and it costs money when people are lonely--

 

Jeremy (19:05):

Six, six, and a half billion. I think you estimated, yes?

 

Lydia (19:07):

Right? Exactly. Medicare and things like that are paying the price for lonelier people. But there's a way that policymakers can think about connection. They can fold connection into the way they make decisions about public space, about family leave. So take the military, you know, moving families the way they did. Um, the US military used to move people so that a kid who grew up in the military was in a new school pretty much every year. And those kids don't really get much of a chance to make friends. And, and it is interesting. So kids who, who did grow up in the military, a lot of people have reached out to me to say, how much the book, and thinking about friendship in this way has made them realize what their childhoods were lacking. I mean, often there was a bond with other military kids, but that's just a particularly potent example of needing to think beyond just the sort of one factor decision. Like, you know, where do we need this lieutenant in the military to be, and thinking, if he's moving his family around, are you disrupting everybody's connections? And you can think about it in the way companies move people. You can think about it in decisions to create; you either create more places where people can come together like public parks or you get rid of them. Right? All of it feeds into this need for connection.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Judy (20:34):

There's so much thought provoking material there because I don't think friendship is something a lot of us stopped to think about. I mean, I did because we're doing this podcast. But I do think that the pandemic has made us appreciate our friends more than ever, especially the value of face-to-face interaction with good friends, sitting around a dinner table, chin wagging, going to the movies with a friend. I miss all those things!

 

Jeremy (21:02):

But even beyond COVID -- hey, I've been vaccinated, you know -- uh, is this notion that good friendships can be a predictor of mortality. And it's so true what you said at the beginning about experiencing a chemical reaction in the presence of good friends. I too am rewarded with happy and joyous feelings when I'm catching up with a very close friend. It's mind influencing, it's sensory. And it makes me feel connected and part of something deeply life-affirming. Its impact is as powerful as any mood changing drug. Now, something else that Lydia spoke about that I relate to was weak ties. And it made me think about how vital those are too. So nowadays, if I'm walking down my street, I'll make a point of saying hello to a passer-by or the mailman. You know, maybe it's the neighbor, who's just moved in, random people. When someone looks back at me and smiles and says, hello back, I get a rush of hope or pleasure. I am not alone. And somebody cares. Feeling that you're part of the world or the community around you, does help alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Jeremy (22:12):

Please join us for our next episode, in which Judy and I offered ourselves up as guinea pigs, and tried out a couple of services aimed at helping those who are lonely. I signed up for an hour with Rent-a-friend, which I won't lie, felt a little odd to spend time with someone you're paying to be your friend, but it was also incredibly pleasant.

 

Judy (22:29):

And I hired a professional 'Cuddlist,' a touch facilitator who promised a sense of calm from a session of hugging, but because we have social distancing to contend with at the moment, it was actually a virtual cuddling session. I know, I know I just went with it.

 

Jeremy (22:53):

You won't want to miss this one. 'Is Anybody Out There?' was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.

 

Judy (22:58):

This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Amada.

 

Jeremy (23:05):

If you're enjoying this podcast, and we hope you are, please rate us on Apple podcasts.

 

Judy (23:11):

And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts.

 

Jeremy (23:14):

For more information about what you heard today, please visit theconnectery.com.

 

Jeremy (23:20):

Let's stay connected.

 

Lydia Denworth

Lydia Denworth is a science journalist and speaker. She is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of three books of popular science, including Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. Adam Grant called Friendship one of the top 20 leadership books of 2020 and Booklist called it “the best of science writing.” Lydia’s work has also appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Psychology Today and many other publications.

www.lydiadenworth.com

@LydiaDenworth.

(Photo credit: Jessica Barthel.)