When I recently moved my youngest son into college and felt unexpected grief at my “empty nest,” I turned to my friends for help. These are women I’ve known more than 40 years, who know me better than anyone else and gave me exactly what I needed: a sympathetic ear, lots of hugs, time in nature, a dose of laughter, and the warm feeling of being loved and understood.
Despite how much we rely on friends, there is little science about the power of friendship. In part, that may be because friendships come in so many flavors—from people we connect with on Facebook, to colleagues who are our close confidants, to friends who are almost like family. How can you capture all of these different facets of friendship in one place?
A new book, The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, aims to do that. Filled with interviews, insights, and at least some of the science behind social connection, the book explores the many physical and emotional benefits of friendship in all of its forms—from “besties” to “bromances” to work buddies and more.
The roots of friendship
It’s clear that humans are social animals, and that’s why our bodies and brains evolved in ways that help us bond with others. We make friends and create intimacy through activities like touch (which releases the hormone oxytocin and increases trust), gossip (which helps us understand our place in a social network and prevent unsavory characters from entering it), and moving in synch with others (which releases endorphins and increases bonding). That’s why you see teenage girls heaped together at slumber parties, dancing and gossiping their way through the night, writes Leaver.
Though we are driven to create connections with one another, we also have limits on how many relationships we can tend to. Or so says the research of Robin Dunbar at Oxford University, who studies friendships and whom Leaver interviews. He has found that people generally can maintain around 150 social connections of varying degrees of closeness: Five very close friends, 10 close friends, 35 friends, and 100 acquaintances.
Why that limit? “Friendships are not like relationships with family members, whom you can ignore from time to time because you know you have a biological contract to love one another,” writes Leaver. “They require temporal and emotional commitment, or they simply disintegrate.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have more friends in these categories, or hundreds of “friends” on our social media networks. But “we’re still beholden to our neocortex”, she says—meaning we don’t have the cognitive capacity to maintain many additional friendships in a meaningful way.
A little help from your friends
The benefits we receive from these different types of friendship vary. In dealing with my newly emptied nest, I was calling on my inner circle—very close friends who are available for deep emotional support and even practical support (like giving me a ride or cooking me a meal) that might otherwise come from a partner or intimate family member.
The next layer of friends might be folks you actively arrange to meet for a cup of coffee or to see on your birthday, while the next group might be people you can count on for simple favors that you’d be willing to return. The largest group are what researchers call “weak ties,” who are less emotionally tied to you but who might offer a different perspective on what’s going on in the world or help when you go job-seeking. Facebook friends you actively follow might fall in this group.
Friends provide physical, moral, social, and emotional support when we need it, writes Leaver. Researchers believe that friends act like a circle of altruism, helping protect us from suffering or from being harmed by others. Perhaps that’s why research suggests that as we age, friends become even more important to our well-being. Friends also help reflect back to us who we are and where we belong in the world, writes Leaver. Of course, some are just great fun to be around, people with whom we can laugh, play sports, grab a drink, or watch a movie.
Leaver also covers the dark sides of friendship: As with romantic relationships, not all friendships are healthy and not all last. Sometimes “besties” end up parting ways, or people you thought you could trust betray you. Friendships end for many reasons, such as misunderstandings, relocations, changing values, or simply growing apart. While it’s natural, losing a friendship can be deeply painful and add to our sense of loneliness—one of the great scourges of our time, says Leaver.
Loneliness is “a very real danger to us all,” she writes. It puts us at a greater risk of clinical dementia, heart attack, stroke, and death—more so than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.
As she explains, some people feel lonely even when surrounded by other people—especially if they don’t feel they can be their authentic selves. That’s why developing supportive relationships (in general) is what’s most important for our well-being and a true source of happiness, something science confirms over and over again.
Strangely, Leaver doesn’t write much about how people can go about making friends—something many curious readers might like to know. But she does veer into a less scientific but nonetheless entertaining inquiry about different friendship issues, like how men negotiate close, platonic relationships with other men, why it’s both good and bad to have friends at work, and whether it’s possible for men and women to be friends without experiencing sexual tension. Though I enjoyed her foray into these subjects, I didn’t necessarily come away with any solid conclusions.
Still, her book provides much food for thought about what friendships mean and why they are important. Without friends, I’m convinced my life would be diminished in many ways. For sure, I would have had a much tougher time recovering from my spell of grief. My only hope is that when my friends need me, they know they can count on me to provide the same support for them. After all, that’s what friends are for.