Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Girlfriends

My mom attended the memorial service for her lifelong friend, Pat Munz, this week. She and Pat had known each other for over sixty years. They raised their kids together. They called each other when the Entenmann’s Day Old Store had a two-for-one sale. They coordinated car-pools and watched each other’s kids when there was an emergency run to the pediatrician. They supported each other as they mourned the loss of their husbands and had martinis every Saturday evening together. They laughed, cried, and grew old together.

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I have spent this past week with girlfriends I have known for somewhere around twenty years – give or take a few. Once upon a time, we all lived in Tokyo together. We are now scattered around the world. How poignant that our reunion was the same week that my mom bid farewell to her best friend. I have spent the week reflecting on how good girlfriends are good for our mental health.

1. Enriched Purpose and Belonging. Good friends share values, help us define what matters most in our lives, celebrate with us in good times and provide that ear to talk to, shoulder to lean on, and nonjudgmental perspective when times are tough. Our friends grant us the safety of being ourselves. As one of my friends said this week, good friends hold us emotionally and help us know that we are not alone when life goes dark. They also roll down the window and sing with us when that favorite song comes on the radio. Over time, these experiences of connection and mutuality are key to increasing our sense of belonging and purpose in life.

2. Expanded Joy. Whether it be getting up early for a walk on the beach, having a quiet conversation over a cup of coffee, wading through mud puddles, or spontaneously jumping up from the couch to dance, the simple pleasure of being with girlfriends increases opportunities for joy, laughter, and connection. In the case of healthy friendships, oxytocin is released when we spend time together, which supports the brain’s secretion of the “feel-good hormone,” serotonin. Of course, the positive, protective, and healthy benefits of friendships depend on the quality of the relationship. Relationships high in antagonism, conflict, and inequality can just as predictably trigger symptoms of psychological distress.

3. Diminished Stress. Good friendships have been described as a “psychological vaccine” against both physical and mental ill health. Close personal friendships characterized by emotional, tangible, and informational support provide prophylactic benefits to our health. When we are in difficult situations, if we have the social support of a friend, it damps down the release of cortisol – the stress hormone – and adrenaline, so we feel less worried and anxious than we would if we had to face these challenging times alone. Across a myriad of situations – from individuals in mourning to individuals experiencing a first episode of psychosis to single mothers at risk for depression – the research consistently documents that social connection and support can reduce stress and mental health risks.

4. Reduced Risk of Depression. Studies show that people who have close friendships in their teen years are at reduced risk for depression and anxiety later in life. And friendship is something we never outgrow. Older adults with strong social support have a lower risk of many health conditions, including depression. In fact, living a socially active life is one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction for older adults. The brain opioid theory of social attachments posits that one of the ways that social interactions are protective is through the release of endorphins that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, which accounts for that “feel-good” experience we get when we are with our friends. Some research suggests that this endorphin system may be disrupted in mental health conditions such as depression.

5. Enhanced Life Expectancy. Women and men socialize differently, with women more reliably turning to their friends in times of stress. Whereas men are more likely to cope with stress with a flight or flight response, women are more likely to cope with stress via “tend and befriend” strategies. Of course, these are broad generalizations, but some research suggests that these different patterns of behavior may be linked to enhanced health for women and may help explain the worldwide gender gap favoring greater longevity for women. In fact, a synthesis of over 150 studies (representing more than 300,000 individuals followed for an average of 7.5 years) found that people with strong social ties have a 50 percent better chance of survival compared to people with weak social connections.

I am so grateful that my mom and Mrs. Munz shared a lifelong friendship that nourished them both. I am thankful to all my girlfriends – near and far – for enhancing my experience of purpose, belonging, and joy in life, helping me navigate life’s stresses, and caring for my mental health. Here’s to dear girlfriends, and hoping that the life expectancy benefit will be ours as well!


Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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