We’re all guilty of it. Of letting too much time go between seeing a friend, letting too many days pass between phone calls with a buddy. We’re all guilty of letting life—kids and spouses, careers, and all the rest—get in the way of friendships.
And I’m not sure why that is. When I sat to write this piece and tried to understand why, for so many of us (including me), coffee with a friend gets pushed down the priority list in favor of other activities, no immediate answer came to mind. Maybe because friendships—the good friendships, especially—will always be there, before, during, and after whatever storm life sends in your direction. Maybe because the best friendships can survive periods of neglect and it’s easy to take that fact for granted.
Or maybe because we’ve been looking at friendships all wrong.
A growing field of science says yes, friendships are more than just fun, take-it-or-leave-it ways to pass the time. As it turns out, the hours we spend with friends are as crucial to our health as the hours we spend at the gym or preparing that healthy meal.
Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, studied how friendships can extend beyond our social lives and influence our health on a cellular level. In an interview with NPR, Denworth says, “[Social relationships] can change your cardiovascular system, your immune system, how you sleep, your cognitive health.”
I’ve often said that my friends saved my life. When my husband was fighting a terminal cancer diagnosis, the friends who stepped in to help without being asked, who sent messages of support, who pulled me out of holes so dark I had forgotten what it was to see light, were lifesavers.
I was speaking metaphorically, of course. I didn’t mean that they made my body any healthier. They didn’t make it any easier to fight off a cold or run a marathon.
Because the idea that something outside my body could affect my cellular health seems impossible. And yet, just because something seems impossible has never meant that it’s untrue. Sometimes it just means we don’t yet fully understand it.
That seems to be the case here. When the research is boiled down to its core truth, the finding is that friendships can be lifesavers, literally. Maybe not in a lower-your-cholesterol-in-two-days kind of way, but in a longer term, big picture, overall health kind of way. Which is arguably as important as a quick health fix.
So, which friendships to invest in? Should you now forego time with your spouse to grab a glass of wine with your childhood best friend? Should you skip that phone call with your sister to call up that mom friend you keep seeing on the playground? The answer is yes, and also no.
A friendship, the kind that’s good for your health, doesn’t have to mean the platonic kind of friendship between non-relatives. The good news is the kinds of friendships that can impact your health include family relationships and romantic relationships. Because at the heart of those relationships, there’s often a friendship. Denworth notes that “[w]hat matters is the quality of the bond, not the origin.”
Which also means social media hasn’t damaged friendships. Though your brain responds differently when looking at someone face-to-face rather than on a screen, and though “friending” someone on Facebook is very different than having an real-life friendship, those vital bonds between true friends exist whether we’re online with a friend or offline.
You might be reading this and thinking, so, that’s all well and good that science says I should make time for friendships, but unless science has a way of adding a few extra hours to the day, I still don’t have time. You might be thinking that there are so many things we “should” be doing for our health and that this feels like just another chore to add to the list of things we can feel guilty about for not doing. You wouldn’t be wrong, but the point of this study is not to turn maintaining friendships into a chore. The point — I would argue maybe the hope, of this study — Denworth notes, is to allow us to give ourselves permission to prioritize friendships.
Because what if we started prioritizing that phone call the way we prioritized that deadline for work? What if we took a meeting with a friend as seriously as we took a trip to the dentist—as not something that can be delayed until it fits more conveniently into our schedule? What if self-care meant following through with that “let’s get together for coffee” plan?
Maybe we’d all be a lot healthier. For sure, we’d all be a lot happier.