Our sensory world has been altered by headphone-attached iPods, Droids, cell phones, laptops and virtual offices. Personal connection and relationships have arguably been sacrificed on the altar of technological efficiency. As Robert J. Putnam revealed in his groundbreaking book of more than a decade ago, Bowling Alone, covering nearly 500,000 interviews over a twenty-five year period, we have increasingly grown disengaged from our friends, family, neighbors and organizations. We belong to fewer clubs and groups, get together with friends less often, know fewer of our neighbors and spend less time with our families. Changes in the workplace, family structure, technology, women's roles and suburban life have contributed to the decline in our social networks.
The deterioration of our connections with each other not only impoverishes our personal and communal lives, but also has a significant effect on our health and well-being. We are faced with trying to reconcile the competing obligations of work, family and community with taking care of ourselves. In my thirty-plus years of clinical experience, I have often observed that without feeling a sense of belonging or connectedness, we risk feeling anxious, depressed and alienated. To that end the research shows that the strongest predictor for creating a fulfilled life is building healthy relationships with others -- at home, at work and in the community.
Women and Friendship
One landmark study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor on the relationship between friendships and stress discovered that women react to stress differently than men. This difference is due to the different proportions of hormones that are released into the bloodstream. When men and women are stressed, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine are released together, which raise a person's blood pressure and circulating blood sugar level. Then oxytocin comes into play, which counters the production of cortisol and epinephrine and produces a feeling of calm, reduces fear and counters some of the negative effects of stress. Men release much smaller amounts of oxytocin than women, leaving them to feel more acutely the effects of the flight-or-fight response. Men tend to respond to stress by escaping from the situation, fighting back or bottling up their emotions.
Taylor contends that women, on the other hand, are genetically hard-wired for friendship in large part due to the oxytocin released into their bloodstream, combined with the female reproductive hormones. When life becomes challenging, women seek out friendships with other women as a means of regulating stress levels. A common female stress response is to "tend and befriend." That is, when women become stressed, their inclination is to nurture those around them and reach out to others.
Another study underscoring the importance of friendships was conducted David Spiegel who studied the survival rate of women with breast cancer. He found that those women who had a strong, supportive circle of friends outlived by many years their counterparts who lived in social isolation.
The Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School showed that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they age, and the more likely they are to lead a contented life. The study also showed that not having friends or confidants is as detrimental to your health as being overweight or smoking cigarettes. The researchers examined how well the women functioned after the death of a spouse, one of life's greatest stressors. They found that even in the face of this major life loss, women with close friends with whom they can share their burdens fare better than women who lack close friendships.
Whether is it with friends, family, a therapist or a support group, women find it healing to tell their stories. We want to talk about our emotional experiences and to process what has happened and what we might do going forward. If friendships can enrich our physical and emotional lives, the question becomes why so many women find it challenging to nourish them. Ruthellen Josselson, author of Best Friends: The Pleasure and Perils of Girls' and Women's Friendships explains that when we get busy with our work and family, the first thing we do is push away our friendships due to lack of time or energy. We lose sight of the strength we provide each other and the healing benefits we derive from our friends. As the research suggests, we need to build and maintain these important bonds to protect our physical and emotional well-being.
Benefits of good friendships and social support:
Healthy friendships emerge from mutual affection and form the social fabric of our lives. Good friends regard each other as special and irreplaceable. Each friendship matters and has a particular and unique place of value in our hearts.
Sometimes a friendship does not support us in the ways that we need. When a friendship consistently leaves you feeling worse after spending time together, it might be time to reconsider the value of that relationship. Perhaps it makes sense to lessen contact with that person, or, in extreme cases, you may need to press the delete button. As difficult as that may seem, sometimes it offers the best alternative, and might just positively influence your self esteem. The goal is to build a network of friendships that support you in the many ways in which you are unique and a part of a greater whole.
Some ideas for building friendships include:
Make building and strengthening friendships a priority.
Treat a new friendship like a "courtship."
Take risks by connecting with someone you want to get to know.
Google an old best friend.
Make dates and plans.
Take a class doing something you enjoy.
Join a gym or check out the local community center.
Volunteer for an organization.
Make a plan with someone you like outside of your routine setting.
Taking the time to build good friendships and a healthy social support network is a wise investment in your health, happiness and well-being. You improve upon the relationships that you already have and cast a wider net to create new friendships. The rewards of building a community of friendships will serve you well throughout life.
What do you do to nourish your friendships?