Even the Mayo Clinic has weighed in. Its publication entitled "Power of Connection" explains that supportive friendships with a strong emotional intimacy component are vital to a person's well-being and a "major indicator of happiness." Noting that such connections tend to buffer stressors that can otherwise erode health, the clinic urged people to literally put themselves out there and invest in friendship. And here's something unexpected: It looks like the actual number of friends in your corral might make a difference. In a six-year study of subjects fifty and older, Harvard University researchers concluded that actively engaging in and promoting social connections could help boost brain function and hedge against memory loss. Those who had what was defined as "the most" social ties suffered memory decline at less than half the rate of those with "the fewest." No matter how you challenge their methodology or define the terms, that's a pretty significant ratio. A similar study involving nurses with breast cancer revealed that those who were more socially isolated or lacked girlfriends proved a full four times more likely to die from the disease than those who had ten or more girlfriends. It didn't matter if the friends lived near or far, and, interestingly, having a spouse didn't correlate in a similar way. Food for thought for those of us who've always stressed quality over quantity or insisted that our lives are too busy and friend filled to welcome any more. In fact, only a third of the women who took my survey said they had more than one to three "authentic, intimate, and reliable" friendships. This suggests that a lot of us might benefit from at least considering the thought of opening up, reaching out, and adding a few more beds at the inn.
But, of course, all of this good news applies when things are running smoothly and positively among girls and women, when we're behaving ourselves and practicing good tending, not bad. The opposite is, naturally, also true. Like other researchers, Robin Moremen, an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University, has found compelling links between friendship and health among women. She and others have also, however, documented the punishing toll on women's health when things aren't going so well. Fear and stress and conflict, after all, lower those precious oxytocin levels and can affirmatively hamper well-being. As psychotherapists (and best friends) Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach noted years ago, "Behind the curtain of sisterhood lies a myriad of emotional tangles that can wreak havoc" on the overall health and quality of our lives. We should also recall that our inclination to tend and befriend happens to sit right alongside that other basic instinct: to survive. When those values collide or the objects of our tending and befriending start presenting as some sort of emotional threat, we're bound to have some problems. In other words, we're certainly justified in celebrating the benefits of female friendship. At the same time, however, given the confirmed nexus between these relationships and our very health and well-being, we'd also do well to confront the hidden feelings, stressors, and struggles that threaten to undermine those benefits.