Be it zebras, zebrafish, or humans, strong social bonds are linked to a long list of health benefits, Denworth said at a recent Knight Science Journalism seminar.
“One of the things I have learned about friendship is how important showing up is,” author Lydia Denworth told a roomful of guests during a February 20 seminar at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program. “So, thank you for showing up for me.”
The Brooklyn-based writer — a contributing editor for Scientific American and blogger for Psychology Today — was in town to talk about her latest book, “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.” She arrived wearing two brightly colored friendship bracelets with DNA double-helix designs, modeled after the cover of her book. Her hour-long talk took the audience on a journey through the history of the scientific study of friendship, how we’ve come to appreciate its evolutionary and biological importance over time, and how to nurture these valuable relationships in our own lives.
Fittingly, the science of friendship itself begins with a friendship, Denworth said. In the 1950s, psychiatrist John Bowlby teamed up with animal behavior scientist Robert Hind to study the bond between mothers and babies in non-human primates. Their partnership pioneered a new way of looking at social bonds as an evolutionary strategy, one that Bowlby believed extended throughout animals’ lives. Even after Bowlby formed his “attachment theory,” however, platonic, nonfamilial forms of attachments were largely ignored. “Friendship was the last relationship to really come under the scientific microscope,” Denworth said.
As long-term studies of animal behavior became more common, Denworth explained, researchers began to notice that a wide range of species — from zebras to zebrafish — appeared to spend more time with certain members of their group. In other words, they were forming friendships. And the number and quality of these friendships could strongly impact an individual’s odds of survival. A study of female baboons published about 20 years ago, for instance, found that social bonds appeared to matter even more to an individual’s health than its place in the group hierarchy. The females with the strongest social bonds lived longer and had healthier babies. “So at the same time as there’s what you traditionally think of as survival of the fittest, there was also survival of the friendliest,” Denworth said.
Humans, it turns out, are no different. Denworth described recent research revealing connections between the quality of our social bonds and a laundry list of health factors. Strong friendships seemed to improve cardiovascular function and sleep, boost resilience to viruses, and slow cellular aging. A 1988 meta-analysis of six long-term studies found that loneliness was as damaging to subjects’ health as smoking. Friendship, Denworth said, is “a matter of life and death.”
And the nature of friendship changes as we age. Denworth explained that while teenagers spend 30 percent of their time with friends, adults allocate just four percent of their time to these relationships. But the bonds remain important throughout our lives, even as it becomes more challenging to maintain them. Denworth cited research showing that a person’s satisfaction with their relationships at 50 is the best predictor for their health and happiness at age 80.
Denworth’s advice? Be deliberate about maintaining friendships, even in adulthood. Although life can get busy with work, romantic relationships, and raising children, she argues it would be a mistake to wait until retirement to have a social life. “That’s kind of like waiting to quit smoking when you’re 65,” Denworth said. “If you smoke from 16 to 65, the damage will have been done.”