This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda on 4 April 2016.
Here’s the good news: the hours you spend on the phone or social media with your friends when you should be working could actually be saving your life.
Yes, really. Various studies have found female friendships can protect you from a wide range of serious illnesses, add years to your life, help you bounce back from trauma, and give you a leg up in your career.
And yet, strong female friendships fall further down the hierarchy of outward markers of life success than other factors. We as women are expected to want a husband, children and a great career, but your elderly aunt doesn’t ask about the health of your female friendships over Christmas dinner.
There’s no giant cultural celebration for female friendship like there is for marriage and kids, even though these are some of the richest and most long-standing relationships in our lives.
Sometimes it can be hard to find time to meaningfully engage with our friends. But as the below three reasons explain, you really should.
1. BFFs can save you from serious illness
Great news: female friendship can help ward off serious illness and disease.
A famous study by Harvard Medical School has been following nurses’ health for decades. The study has found that the more friends these women have, the less likely they have been to develop physical impairments as they age.
Other research shows that loneliness presents as much of a risk to health as smoking and obesity. While there’s plenty of advocacy around smoking and healthy eating, not many organisations are raising the alarm about the public health crisis of loneliness.
Connection, intimacy and emotional support are key to combatting the high stress levels that can bring about chronic illness. Spending time with female friends boosts serotonin, which makes us happier, and in turn, healthier.
This is why the Head of Psychiatry at Stanford University, David Spiegel, says one of the best things a woman can do for her health is to prioritise relationships with female friends. In contrast, one of the best things he says men can do is marry a woman. Spiegel makes the excellent point that, while we view exercise as important and productive, we frequently diminish hanging out with friends as recreational.
A landmark UCLA study suggests women are biologically programmed to cultivate female friendships in times of stress. According to these authors, studies on stress were historically done on men, concluding that the biological responses to stress are fight and flight. But these researchers argue that women have a broader repertoire of stress responses.
It seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in women, it buffers the fight or flight response and primes us to tend to children and socialise with other women instead (“tend and befriend”).
When we tend and befriend, more oxytocin is released, which further counters the stress and produces a calming effect. According to one of the researchers, Dr. Klein, this calming response doesn’t occur in men, because testosterone — which ramps up in men under stress — reduces the effects of oxytocin.
2. Female work friends (or wives) give you a leg up in your career
Women helping each other professionally can help combat workplace inequality. Whether it’s women hiring, promoting or mentoring other women, it all helps reverse the systemic discrimination that sees women paid and promoted less than men.
Meanwhile, relationship-building is key to success in many industries. The dynamic of female friendships cultivates the same skills that are necessary for relationship-building in the workplace, whether it’s with clients, customers or co-workers.
What’s more, workplace friendships are good for business. A Gallup study of more than five million employees found workers with a best friend in the office are more engaged, productive and successful in their jobs. And critically, employers are less likely to fire their friends.
There’s a lingering attitude that work and personal life should be kept separate. But really, having a “work wife” can make all the difference to the decades of our lives we spend in the office.
Time with friends inside and outside of work hours allows us to stay sane despite the stress of our jobs. So it’s ironic that work often forces us to deprioritise our friends.
3. “Galpals” can be a bulletproof vest for traumatic life events
Life is full of nasty surprises. But individuals respond to traumatic life events in vastly different ways. Those who bounce back unscathed often do so thanks to close friendships.
When the Harvard Medical School researchers looked at how well their nurses functioned after the death of a spouse, they found that women with a close friend or confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. The same goes for women experiencing divorce, miscarriage, and other traumatic life events.
A wealth of research shows that social support can help prevent the development of trauma-induced disorders like PTSD. For those who do suffer from these conditions, social support can reduce symptoms and make sufferers more functional.