On the great plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania, a lone baboon fleeing an attack from predators will experience a rapid rise in cortisol and adrenalin levels. If another baboon is fleeing with it, the levels of hormonal stress will only rise half as much. And if a whole troop is fleeing together, their stress hardly rises at all – you can almost hear them shouting, ‘Catch us if you can!’ as they scarper.
In his bestseller The Girls From Ames, Jeffrey Zaslow tells the story of 11 women, friends since childhood. Despite going their separate ways after high school, the friendships survived the ups and downs of the next 40 years: success and failure at university, marriage, divorce, children. When Kelly learns she has breast cancer, she knows she’s going to need the support of those close to her. But rather than turn to her family, she calls on her old friends. A simple message sets off an absolute shower of love – phone calls, emails, letters, parcels – the response is overwhelming. The chemotherapy is giving her mouth ulcers. One friend sends her a blender to make milkshakes to help soften the mucous membrane. Another friend knits her a woollen hat to keep her head warm when her hair falls out. Kelly explains it is easier to talk about what she’s going through with her friends than with her doctors.
Research shows that when times are tough, our friends can indeed play a major role in improving our wellbeing.
A US study showed that women with breast cancer who could name 10 friends had a survival rate four times higher than those who couldn’t. Just the fact of having bonds with other people seems to protect us. Studies with men give the same results.
A Swedish study of 736 men found friendship to be just as effective as being married in protecting against heart disease. The same study shows that being without friends is as bad for these men’s health as smoking regularly.
It’s not always easy to ask for help from our friends. Rather than weighing down just one person with all our troubles, we need to accept what each friend is best able to offer. One may be a good listener, offering a shoulder to cry on or sharing a moment of laughter. Another can help prepare questions to ask the doctors. Perhaps another can help out with the children, shopping, tidying up, driving us around when we’re unwell.
At times, life can be surprisingly like the great Serengeti plain, with all its violence and beauty. And it’s up to us to forge the bonds that will carry us through together, with serenity and joy.
Read New friends my own age by Diane Priestley on LifeLabs