Friends With (Health) Benefits: How To Prioritize Your Friendships (And Why You Should)

Each month, we at KDL are focusing on one subject, and how to REALLY master it. In February, we are exploring what it means to LOVE. To really love, everyone, everywhere, every-which-way. Up this week: The importance of female friendships.

Female friendship is magic. For a stretch of time, all of my long-distance best friends and I were on a good tear of getting together once or twice per year to sit around and take turns praising and worshiping one other until we were breathless. It was fuel for my soul: I could spend six months looking forward to the 72-hour gathering and another six months riding the high.  Recently I found out that there are tangible health benefits to best friendship like reducing anxiety and increasing emotional health and optimism. Real science!

My summer camp had a policy that if a camper was late to morning line-up, he or she had to walk like a duck in front of everyone else. We were fully in puberty and mortified by our own existences, so my best friends and I made a pact: no one could be late alone. Doing the duckwalk together made us feel infinitely less close to death than doing it solo. Later in life, another best friend stroked my hair during a scary medical procedure. These actions are scientifically backed to have actually improved those experiences!

neuroscientist named James Coan conducted the most heartwarming study in 2006: can we measure the power of a loving touch? He gave out electric shocks (how generous!) to women holding the hand of someone they loved, and standing solo. The happy hand-holders experienced lower blood pressure and less stress.

I also love the idea of this 2008 study that proves that friendship improves brain function later in life, when we’ll likely/hopefully be living in a compound of tiny homes with our white-haired best friends, anyway. Two groups of elderly Americans were profiled: one who had regular contact with friends, neighbors, children and a spouse, and one who did not. The ones without friends experienced memory loss at TWICE the rate of the ones with friends! I know it’s anecdotal, but I have a 92-year-old grandmother in Florida with whose crystal clear memories are only outnumbered by the number of friends and generations of family who love her.

But my favorite study researched the perceived incline of a hill when standing alone under the weight of a heavy bag, and standing with a friend. The ones standing alone at the bottom thought the hill was way steeper than the ones who were with a friend, and not only THAT, but the longer the two were friends, the less steep they thought the hill was! What an achingly beautiful scientific illustration of the idea that no hurdle is too high when you’re climbing it with a friend.

Consider yourself lucky if you have friends you’d die for, and vice versa — and consider yourself even luckier because according to a 2010 study out of Utah, having friends means your risk of dying prematurely is half that of your friendless peers. That’s on par with quitting smoking, and twice as strong as exercising!

So, here are three (realistic!) ways to prioritize the friendships in your life, and get yourself all these lovely benefits.

1. Always answer the phone when a friend calls, even if you can’t talk. Even if it’s just to connect by hearing her voice and immediately saying you can’t talk.

2. Invite a friend to do errands with you. You both have to go food shopping/call your senators/hit the pharmacy; this is a fantastic time to connect.

3. Join a gym together! I did this with a friend back in October, and according to the study above we are TRIPLING our chances of living a long life (social connection plus exercise).

So, here’s to friends: May we be great ones, may we have great ones, and may we continue lifting one another up emotionally, spiritually and physically. Clearly, our lives depend on it.


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