Bette Midler used to sing a song I loved: “You’ve got to have friends…” which we all sang along to as teenagers, surrounded by lots of buddies.
There was no lack of friendship in those days. We did everything together, the girls would huddle in clumps telling secrets; teenage boys would show off their testosterone with feats of endurance and sporting prowess. And we were always heading off to endless, endless parties together. Friends were easy to meet, easy to please, and could be counted in the hundreds (yes, even pre-Facebook).
Now how many — one hand, two hands? Friends just seem to drop off along the way as time passes. Some move away, others pass away, many change so much, or we do, that there is little left in common. But most just end up like me, time poor, juggling the needs of partners and kids, work pressures, health demands including ageing parents, pets to vets. Phones are a great connector, but I miss the huddling, giggling and intimacy.
While my single friends still put effort into friendships, the co-habitators and parents amongst us seem happy enough with ready-made company at home.
But it is to our health detriment according to research. There’s a burgeoning area of neuroscience devoted to “social neuroscience” proving that social bonding sharpens brain function. It also extends life, according to an Australian study conducted by the Flinders Centre for Ageing Studies. Respected website webmd.com reports that the study followed nearly 1500 older people for 10 years. It found that those who had a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 per cent.
It also reports that a Stanford University study showed women with breast cancer who took part in a support group lived twice as long as those who didn’t. Marc Cohen, professor of complementary medicine at RMIT University, talks of an Israeli study that proves a 50 per cent reduction in cardiac problems such as heart attacks if men feel loved; and a 50 per cent hike in immune system function in all of us if we feel nurtured, due to lower levels of cortisol — a stress hormone.
“Love and friendship is the secret foundation to all wellness,” he tells me. It stimulates the brain to produce feel-good hormones and chemicals such as oxytocin, the cuddle chemical, and serotonin, which increase contentment and confidence and overall health.
According to neuroscientists, nature has given us these biological payoffs to keep us being social because social cohesion and a tribal instinct helped us survive as a species when we were surrounded by dinosaurs and predators. There are still predators around, metaphorical and literal, but the biggest killer of all as we get older seems to be loneliness.
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