Women’s Philanthropy learns about the science of friendship

By Charlene Riegger
Director of Marketing

Almost 40 women participated in the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy Zoom event examining the science of friendship on September 22.

Lydia Denworth talked on the subject of her 2021 book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. It was an interesting take on the topic, looking through a scientific lens to learn about a subject most people don’t think of as scientific: science is provable and measurable, after all, but how do you measure friendship?

Denworth explained the qualities that friendships share, including long-lasting contact, positive communication and cooperative deeds. In short, friendship makes us feel connected and makes us more willing to help.

Friendships have a direct relationship to physical health. The psychological is biological. Positive interactions have health benefits, while a lack of friendships has negative effects. Cardiovascular function, the immune system, sleep quality, mental health, cognitive abilities, stress responses and rates of cellular aging can all be affected. Denworth said friendships are just as important to health as diet and exercise.

So what is friendship, anyway? The basic scientific definition is: a relationship with repeated interactions, shared history and evolving content (which makes me wonder whether Netflix and Hulu could be considered my friends!). It is better to have one quality relationship than many that don’t fulfill all the needs of a successful friendship, Denworth said. A friendship that makes you feel connected and like you belong provides a release of “happy chemicals” in your brain. Conversely, social exclusion or a lack of friendship produces the same response in the brain as physical pain.

Denworth pointed out three friendship styles. The independent style is usually preferred by someone who likes solitude and makes friends based on circumstances or shared experiences. The discerning style is the person with just a handful of close friends and not many friends beyond that. The acquisitive-style person collects friends.

How long does it take to make a friend? According to Denworth, about 50 hours of interaction — 90 hours to make a good friend and 200 for a best friend. A friend is reliable, positive and helpful. Most friendships include a shared worldview and mutual respect.

You may have a lot of interaction with someone, but if that interaction doesn’t include the essential ingredients for friendship, the relationship may not ultimately be healthy for you. Denworth agrees with the saying “Some friends are here for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” If a friendship isn’t reliable, positive and helpful in the present, it is OK to step away.

Denworth reports that the best predictor of health at age 80 is not family history of disease, or even personal medical history, but satisfaction with your circle of friends at age 50. So, unfortunately, those simple “secrets to long life” like drinking a beer or scotch every day, eating cookies every night, eating spicy food are as untrue as they seem.

Cherish your friends and you will not only enjoy your life, but also be taking a positive step toward prolonging it. And what does that mean? More time with friends!