About a decade ago, a study carried out at UCLA examined the benefits of friendship among women. It made official what many women have known all along: Our friendships not only make us feel better, they are a positive force for reducing stress and helping us lead healthier, happier lives. The UCLA study found that women respond to stress with a rush of brain chemicals that makes us seek out women for comfort and support. Prior to this study, most stress research (like most other medical and psychological research) was conducted on men. That may be why the "fight or flight" response was so heavily linked to events that are stressful. In the good old days those two options represented the only survival mechanisms available to warriors and other men. Now, however, researchers suspect that women have a wider response to stress.
According to one of the UCLA study authors, Laura Klein, now an assistant professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State University, it seems likely that when women are stressed, their brains release the hormone oxytocin, which encourages them to surround themselves with other women. This instinct releases more oxytocin, further countering stress and inducing a calm state. This response doesn't occur in men, Dr. Klein says, because testosterone, the male hormone, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin while estrogen, the female hormone, enhances it.
The catalyst for this research came when Klein and a colleague, Shelley Taylor, realized that when women working in their lab were stressed, they gathered together to commiserate, while stressed-out men went off on their own. The fact that women and men respond to stress differently has major implications. For one thing, "tend and befriend" as Klein and Taylor call it, may explain why women live longer than men. Many studies have shown that social ties reduce the risk of disease and increase survival time among seriously ill people.
One study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that the more friends a woman had, the less likely she was to develop physical ailments associated with aging. Widows have been shown to survive the experience of losing a spouse without long-term, permanent physical or emotional damage if they have at least one close friend.
Friendship isn't only good for women. According to a recent article in "The International Herald Tribune," a ten-year Australian study revealed that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. People with friends have been found to have fewer colds. And in Sweden, a study of over 700 middle-aged men found that having friendships reduced their risk of heart attack.
But women's friendships appear to be particularly beneficial, both physically and psychologically. In a 2006 study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer, for example, women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with ten or more friends.
And there isn't a Second Wave feminist alive who doesn't know how important validation and support can be. Such support leads to a lowered heart rate and blood pressure, and a reduced desire to overeat. Both the immune and digestive systems are known to work more efficiently as well. As one expert put it, "In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn't terribly well appreciated."
A new book about female friendship may change that. The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a 40-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow recounts the friendship of 10 childhood friends from Ames, Iowa. Now in their forties and scattered throughout the U.S., theirs is a story of friendship that has helped these women survive divorce, breast cancer, the death of a child, and more. As a reviewer said, "The role of friendship in their health and well-being is evident in almost every chapter."
Mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins, school chums and co-workers are experiencing healthier living through female friendship, whether newly acquired or so long a part of life that it's in our DNA. My own Crone group goes back to junior high school. I don't know what I'd do without these special women in my life. They give me a joie d'vivre that I find nowhere else in quite the same way.
The writer Anais Nin understood the value of female friendship. She wrote, "Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive..." So did actress Marlene Dietrich: "It's the friends you can call up at 4:00 a.m. that matter," she said. Any woman with friends like that not only has a precious gift; she may well have a longer, happier life too.