The Benefits of Friendship

Having a network of friends is one of the single, most important aspects to a happy and healthy life. Unlike family relationships, our friendships are formed by personal choice, without the formality of legal ties or ceremonies. Like family relationships however, friendships can span our entire lifetime.

There are many kinds of friends. Some are quite casual and may center on a common hobby or pastime. Other friendships form due to participation in an organization or club, but never extend outside those boundaries. We have best friends, close friends, childhood friends, good friends, work friends and school friends.

Frequently, the friendships we make during our youth fade or dwindle as we grow up and move on to new places in life. Yet when our childhood and school-year friends stay with us into adulthood, they are often the most important friends we have. Our common history and the length of time that our connection has continued becomes the glue that keeps us together, even if we’ve changed significantly from when we first met.

Our most valuable friends are the ones with whom we feel the deepest connection and greatest trust. It is with these friends that we share our fears, secrets, desires and problems and dreams. There are many unexpected benefits from this type of relationship, including such things as lessening stress, limiting depression, lowering blood pressure, keeping our minds agile, and lessening the debilitating effects of old age. Research has even shown that people with close friendships are more likely to exercise regularly, avoid excessive alcohol and even be more inclined to quit smoking.

Having multiple groups of friends increases our physical and mental activity levels, raises self-esteem and self-confidence, creates fun and pleasure, and provides us with support and security. Prior to the late 1960s there was little attention paid to the study of the effects that friendship can have on the quality and length of our lives. In more recent years, however, researchers in a variety of fields, including sociology, psychiatry, anthropology, immunology, psychology and communications have realized the significant role that friendship – good and bad – can play in our lives.

Generally speaking, friendships between women are stronger than those between men. This is likely due to the fact that friendships between women include a greater degree of emotional bonding and spiritual support, whereas friendships between men are more focused on physical activity and mental connection.

And because men and women are biologically hard-wired differently, women also “tend and befriend” when under stress. Whereas our male counterpart’s response to stress, pressure or crisis is the familiar “fight-or-flight” pattern. In research done by Shelly Taylor, PhD and five other colleagues, they discovered that women turn to nurturing, being supportive and empathetic or “tending” and strengthening bonds and reinforcing connection “befriending” when they are in similar circumstances.

Hormonally, women respond differently under pressure by releasing oxytocin, which is a calming hormone. Sometimes also called the “love hormone,” its release into a woman’s systems raises the desire for companionship. And with the comfort and support of friends, her body releases even more of this feel-good hormone, ultimately creating a sense of calm and well-being, even when the underlying problem, strife or crisis has not changed.

I’m always amazed by the ingenuity of our bodies to protect us from ourselves! Women simply crave connection when we’re stressed, which is exactly what our bodies need in order to maintain our physical and mental well being. I now know that instead of distancing or cocooning myself when I am depressed or troubled about something, that the best choice is to “reach out and touch someone.”

It is critically important to our health and well-being to connect…not isolate! There have been many studies done that confirm the importance of psychosocial support to help women to better manage pressure and let off steam. Simply put, women prefer being with others when they’re stressed, while men prefer being left alone.

Over 45 years ago, when I was a Girl Scout, I remember learning a song that I still hold in high regard today. The author is unknown, but I’ll bet it was a woman! And to this day, when I think of the lyrics, especially the 6th stanza of the song, I get teary-eyed. Friendship is a treasure that we must appreciate, protect, and work hard to maintain.

Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.

A circle is round,
it has no end.
That’s how long,
I will be your friend.

A fire burns bright,
it warms the heart.
We’ve been friends,
from the very start.

You have one hand,
I have the other.
Put them together,
We have each other.

Silver is precious,
Gold is too.
I am precious,
and so are you.

You help me,
and I’ll help you
and together
we will see it through.

The sky is blue
The Earth is green
I can help
to keep it clean.

Across the land
Across the sea
Friends forever
We will always be.

Author Unknown

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