When friendship saves your life

Beyond eating well and exercising, friendship may just be the most important thing in the world when it comes to our health. On this International Day of Friendship, DiscovHER looks at the work of developmental psychologist Susan Pinker. Her book, The Village Effect, published in Europe this year, draws on social neuroscience research to explore how face-to-face time with our nearest and dearest friends brings us health and ultimately a longer life.

Want to live longer? See friends

Healthy eating and exercise have nothing on friendship. As Pinker writes:

Research shows that playing cards once a week or meeting friends every Wednesday night at Starbucks adds as many years to our lives as taking beta blockers or quitting a pack-a-day smoking habit. 

A 2010 study by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, showed the likelihood of survival for people with strong social relationships improved by as much as 50%. Social bonds can actually alter the outcome of chronic disease. Isolated women are 66% more likely to die of breast cancer than women with 10 friends they can count on.

A good gossip will save us

One reason why women live at least five years longer than men, Pinker suggests, is because women place such value on social contact. Pinker’s visits to remote Sardinian villages where men live to be nearly as old as women and which are home to six times as many 100 year olds than average, explore how the social side of close communal village life extends longevity. Men live almost as long as women when they’re equally sociable. No villager is alone.

(Un) Social media

Yet the rest of us are increasingly going home to an empty house. In the last 40 years the number of people who live alone has leapt by 300%. And it doesn’t count that we’re going back to join our online friends. Quoting Pinker:

In a short evolutionary time we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reaching each other’s every gesture and intention, to a solitary species, each one of us preoccupied with our own screen.

Rather than helping people connect face-to-face, Pinker suggests that social networks help people who are already sociable simply become more social, organizing real life meet-ups online. Whereas introverts become even more introverted and live increasingly in their online worlds to the detriment of real-world interaction.

The danger of loneliness

Feeling lonely, says Pinker, is as painful as being wildly hungry or thirsty. And there’s a reason for that. Social cohesion would once have been essential for survival, because becoming isolated from the group spelt either starvation or predation and ultimately death. 

Hey you if you don’t find your people (or they don’t find you) you’re a goner.

While human contact boosts our cardiovascular and immune systems plus IQ levels, loneliness exacerbates stress response and inflammation linked to heart disease.

The chicken-egg, friendship-health, question

The chicken-egg question Pinker asks is, are people with lots of friends simply more biologically-destined to be healthy? Research by Martha McClintock and Susan Conzen suggests it is friendship that brings health and not the other way round. Their socially isolated lab rats developed a staggering 84 times more breast cancer tumours than those rats who lived in groups. Having controlled for every other difference, their close living arrangements, helped rats beat their tumors.

Friends for life

The take home, says Pinker is to recreate your own Village Effect wherever you live: 

You don’t need to live in a remote Italian village to feel surrounded by a tight circle of people in whom you’ve invested serious time and affection over the years – and who have returned that attention. You can create that effect with the people you know, right where you live. This village effect not only helps you live longer, it makes you want to.

What are your methods to recreate your own Village Effect wherever you are? Let us know at @4womeninscience.

Susan Pinker is a Canadian developmental psychologist. She teaches psychology at McGill University from where she achieved a BA in 1979 followed by a Master’s of Science in Clinical Psychology from the University of Waterloo in 1981. Pinker writes extensively about neuroscience, behavioral economics and social psychology. The Village Effect is her second book, following The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap about how sex differences influence the workplace. Check out her website here.

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