Your Brain on Friendships

On CBS Sunday Morning, a news magazine program, they ran an awesome story this last weekend about the health benefits of friendship.(Watch the clip here, if interested.) In the segment on CBS, they showed two of these recent studies-- one in the field of psychology and the other in neuroscience.

Friendships Decrease How We Perceive Stressors

First, they re-enacted the psychology study that came out of University of Virgina a few years back that revealed how we assess life differently when a friend is nearby.  Students wearing a heavy backpack at the bottom of a hill were asked to estimate the steepness of the incline.  Some students were alone as they did the assignment, others had one friend standing beside them. The lead professor, Dr. Dennis Proffitt says on Sunday Morning, "They find the hill to be steeper if they are alone, and less steep if they are with friends."

When a friend stands nearby we perceive the hill to be less steep than when we are standing alone.

First, let's just let that one sink in for one moment.  How many of us feel exhausted or weary by life?  How many of us feel a wee bit overwhelmed?  How many of us feel like the metaphoric hill in front of us feels too steep? If there was a way to face life where our perception was radically changed to perceive our situations as a wee bit easier, less intimidating, and more do-able, would you want it?  Our social support is one such factor.

Interestingly, the research also showed that the more intimate and meaningful the friendship, the less steep the hill was perceived; and that conversely when subjects were asked to think of a neutral or disliked person they estimated the hill to be even more steep. That speaks volumes for how important forgiveness and boundaries can be-- if I let someone I don't like keep filling my thoughts then I'm more likely to view life as hard and steep!  Our invitation isn't just to invite friends to stand close in our lives, but it's also to find peace with those around us who might be adding to our stress.

Friendships Reduces Actual Stress in our Brains

The second highlighted study contrasted MRI brain activity when a subject who was receiving intermittent mild electrical shocks was alone or while holding the hand of a friend.  Not knowing when the shocks were going to occur, this test showed the brain response to our anticipatory anxiety, the type of stress so many of us live with as we worry about all the things that are uncertain.  The parts of our brain that sense danger are much less active when we're holding the hand of a friend.

When we are holding the hand of a friend while experiencing anticipatory stress, there is less wear on our brains than when we face stress alone.

Dr. James Coan, the lead researcher in this study and a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, said to CBS Sunday Morning: "The burden of coping with life's many stressors... when you have to deal with them all by yourself, it not only feels more exhausting, it literally creates more wear on your body."

Similarly, Dr. Coan's work focuses a lot on marriages, too, showing that when faced with a fearful or stressful situation, it doesn't only feel comforting to hold our husbands hand, but actually is comforting as our brain scans show that our anxiety is literally reduced.

Three Friendship Choices to Lower your Stress

I am ever grateful that the topic of friendship, which has long been held as a warm-and-fuzzy subject, is actually grabbing the attention of scientists who are able to articulate to us the significance of our relationships.  For far more than simply a feel-good theme, the results of studies that focus on our friendships are compelling us to acknowledge that this is actually one of the most important health factors in our lives. It's long been my soapbox that right up there with "eat vegetables, exercise, and get enough sleep" should also be "spend quality time with friends."

Because it's not enough to just have had good friends in our past.  We actually need them now.  We don't want to lie to our brains and say, "I'm too busy to make friends right now" which is another way of saying we're too stressed to add one more thing, when in actuality we need those meaningful friendships to actually decrease our stress!

Here are three ways you can move toward a less-stressful, more friend-filled life.

  1. Invest now in new friends if your goal is meaningful friends.  Many of us don't take the time to be with new friends because it's not meaningful, easy, and deep yet compared to our close friendships.  But showing up for "coffee dates" (or your repeated activity of choice!) with a new friend now is how you make sure you have that close friend next year.
  2. Add some more consistency with someone you already feel intimate with.  Many of us have friends we know deeply but we rarely talk to them or see them because of distance. If you feel like you don't have local close friends yet, consider talking weekly on the phone with a far-flung friend so you can at least reap the benefits of intimate support while you're fostering the local friendships that aren't yet intimate.
  3. Be a wee bit more vulnerable.  I devote an entire chapter in my book "Friendships Don't Just Happen!" to this topic to help us understand what vulnerability is, what it looks like, and how appropriate it is to grow it slowly.  But in both these studies, the friend was standing close or holding a hand, which means that part of the benefit means they were nearby, present, or engaged. To simply have friends who know nothing about our lives (and therefore can't really support us) doesn't fully capture the benefits possible!  We have to let people get a little closer.

There was a time when people thought it silly to go jogging or work out at a gym.  It was foreign thought that we'd set aside time in our lives to exercise if we weren't professional athletes.  But as our lives became more sedentary, the need for intentional physical movement became obvious.

Similarly, as our lives become more disconnected from tribes, social circles, and nearby family, we are in a time where we all need to swallow the truth that we must become more intentional about fostering meaningful friendships. Not just because we're lonely or wish we had someone to go do something with, but because our health-- physical and emotional-- are dependent on it.

It is no small thing that with a friend nearby you will not only experience less stress, but also perceive the world with less stress. And less stress means longer lives, less disease, and more joy.

To your health!

This segment on friendship also included an interview with Dr. Irene Levine, a women I admire for her healthy friendship advice, and stories featuring two separate groups of friends. I was particularly moved by the group of male friends they showed as I think there is need for so much modeling of deep male friendship in our society.  Job well done CBS!