Feb 9, 2020
We all know that friends are good for the soul, but a compelling new book argues that they’re also good for the body — while “frenemies” might actually make us sick.
“Evidence has piled up to show that our relationships, including friendships, affect our health at a much deeper level, tweaking not just our psychology and motivation but the function and structure of our organs and cells,” writes science journalist Lydia Denworth in “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond” (W.W. Norton), out now.
The average American claims to have about four close friends, and the great majority of us have between two and six. Only 5 percent of those studied had more than eight, while 5 percent had no close friends. (Denworth defines “close” friends as “those you cannot imagine life without” and relatives or spouses can count.)
Still, 20 percent of us call ourselves lonely — and the health implications are overwhelming. (Interesting note: Those who are isolated aren’t necessarily lonely. The hermits among us might actually enjoy being alone, while the ones truly at risk are those who “yearn for connection,” Denworth writes.)
We’ve known about the fallout of loneliness since a 1988 Science paper concluded that being lonely “constitute[s] a major risk factor for health” equivalent to obesity, smoking and lack of physical exercise. According to Denworth’s research, lack of social contact in the elderly costs Medicare $6.7 billion a year.
A meta-analysis of 308,000 people in 2010 concluded that there is a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival for those with stronger social relationships. And other studies list even more health factors linked to loneliness: depression, lower sleep quality, elevated blood pressure and increased aggressiveness and stress. Strong social networks even seemed to protect against dementia.
There is also evidence that lonelier people tend to have higher levels of inflammation in the body, which as Denworth writes, “is like generic fertilizer for just about every disease that afflicts us.”
But not all social ties are created equal.
There are purely positive relationships, which make up about half of our social network, and then purely negative ones, which are rare. And then there are the uncomfortably ambivalent ones that land in-between — a k a “frenemies.”
These ambivalent bonds make up about half of our social network, and unfortunately, the research on them is pretty stark: “Ambivalent relationships are bad for us,” writes Denworth.
These unhealthy relationships have negative effects over a wide variety of measures — levels of inflammation, aging, blood pressure and even greater artery calcification. This is true not only of intimate relationships but more distanced ones, too, such as colleagues and neighbors. Sadly, about 50 percent of married people (and in some studies as high as 77 percent) view their spouse ambivalently, according to Brigham Young University researchers.
Surprisingly, Denworth argues that social media is actually good for friendships, especially for older people who receive more support from their community on the Web. A Pew survey of social-media groups showed “stronger relationships across the board . . . They got more social support — receiving advice, companionship, help when sick, and so on — than non-users.”
(There are exceptions. Teenagers, especially girls, are more likely to suffer declines in life satisfaction the more time they spend on social media. And all people experience higher reported levels of loneliness the more time they spend online.)
According to the book, it takes between 40 and 60 hours to create a casual friendship and over 200 hours to become a “best friend.” One study showed that the happiest people at the end of their lives “tended to their relationships. They actively worked to replace co-workers with new playmates. They put in the time,” Denworth writes.
“The takeaway is that the faster you identify the need for connection and make it a priority, the better life will be, the happier you will be.”