There was a great segment on CBS Sunday morning last week on friendship. They talked about some current research on the benefits of having close friends. They concluded that friends can literally help you shoulder burdens. At the University of Virginia, psychology professor Dennis Proffitt and a team of graduate students demonstrated how they’ve been asking students — either alone or with a friend standing by — to put on a heavy backpack and climb a hill.
“They find the hill to be steeper if they’re alone, and less steep when they’re with friends,” said Proffitt. “Moreover, if you look at the strength of their friendship, the more time they spend together with their friend, the shallower the hill appears.” The conclusion is that you are less strong if you are alone. Additional studies indicate that people with a circle of friends tend to be healthier and live longer. Scientist are not clear why this is so.
“One of the big questions that we’re interested in, in our lab, is how the brain takes social relationships and translates that into better health outcomes,” said James Coan, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Virginia.
He put an interviewer, Ms. Braver, through the same test he’s been doing on a series of subjects, telling her that while getting an MRI she would be given a series of mild electric shocks, but would not know when.
“It’s what we call anticipatory anxiety,” said Coan, “and that is our interest, because that’s the kind of anxiety we’re interested in generalizing to our everyday lives. For most of us, the stuff that we worry about is uncertain.”
Braver went through one series of shocks alone, and another holding the hand of a good friend. And like all of the other subjects, the parts of her brain that sense danger were less — much less — active when she was holding her friend’s hand. “I would say it was a bigger difference even than we had predicted,” said Coan, examining Braver’s scans.
So what does the test tell about what it means to have a friend? “The burden of coping with life’s many stresses, when you have to deal with them all by yourself not only feels more exhausting, it literally creates more wear on your body” said Coan.
So how important is it to have friends? In fact, a recent CBS News poll finds that more than 90 percent of Americans say it’s important to have close friends. (62 percent said “very,” and 29 percent said “somewhat,” versus 8 percent who responded “not at all”).
My conclusion? When you find a group of friends that love and accept you the fight/flight response has to diminish. Less stress hormones in the body makes you feel better and bonding with your friends releases endorphins of joy. So find a group of friends and improve the quality of your health and make everyday more fun. I don’t think this is really a mystery; it makes perfect sense to me although I can’t prove it scientifically!