Ten months ago, I was lonely. I was the stranger in a strange land. Not only had I left a comfortable life in a comfortable town, but I left some of my most precious “possessions” thousands of miles away – long-term, dependable, heart connections with women.
Today I find myself blessed beyond measure. I am in the company of women from all walks of life. I have found friendships to feed that gnawing hunger for female companionship only women understand.
Women. We are remarkable. We are resilient. We make each other laugh and hold each other when we cry. We are the backbone of our families, the often unseen foundation of our communities. Together, we share an enviable, unbreakable and irreplaceable bond.
Recently, I listened to women introduce themselves during an art class. Only one or two of us were practicing artists. They detailed their former lives as accountants, lawyers, business owners and Montessori teachers. They shared bits of history from divorces to long-term first marriages, loads of grandchildren to parents of pets. Each had come to the class with a sense of adventure and enthusiasm for learning. And though unspoken, there was the understanding we had in common – we were seeking the company of women.
In two other gatherings there were tears, the outpouring of life’s stresses, the emptying of emotions that would bewilder the opposite sex. And most of us were strangers. It prompted me to think about and research that most unique of all bonds – the connections between women.
In 2002, the University of California Los Angeles unveiled a landmark study about friendship among women. The study suggested that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women.
Author Gale Berkowitz interviewed the study’s authors.
“Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” said Laura Cousino Klein, one of the authors and a Pennsylvania State University professor. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.
Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.”
“In fact,” Klein said, “it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the “fight or flight” response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men, because testosterone – which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress – seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it.”
It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion developed through the UCLA study may explain why women consistently outlive men, wrote Berkowitz. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.
Berkowitz cited one study in which, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60 percent.
I am reminded of a C.S. Lewis quote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.
The Harvard study also looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse. Researchers found that those women who had a close friend confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.
If those studies aren’t convicting, consider one published In Industrial Psychiatry, called “Loneliness, Depression and Sociability in Old Age.”
“There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that psychological and sociological factors have a significant influence on how well individuals age,” according to researchers Archana Singh and Nishi Misra. That’s shown clearly in 2017 research led by William Chopik of Michigan State University who showed in surveys taken by about 280,000 people that “valuing friendships was related to better functioning, particularly among older adults,” and that “only strain from friendships predicted more chronic illnesses over a six-year period.”
The studies go on. The more I read, the sadder I am for the choices I made when caring for my mother in the last years of her life. She taught me how to make friends and how to nurture them. She was warm, loyal and always available – sometimes to a fault – to others. Yet this friend of friends, my mother, died absent all of them except for one faithful woman who put everything aside weekly to make time to visit her.
I know now, as I enter the last third of my life, I should have done more to bring friendships to my mother. Until I got there myself, I did not realize how isolated, alone and lonely a woman can feel without her girlfriends. For that, I will always be profoundly sorry. For the rest of us, I hope, there is time to ensure that mistake is not compounded.
A professor at Stanford University, then the head of psychiatry, once said, “One of the best things that a man can do for his health is to be married to a woman. Whereas, for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health is to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends.”
So there it is. Make time, girlfriends. And live longer.