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On the morning after September 11th, just before dawn, I walked over to my friend Mary Ann's and knocked tentatively on her door. She appeared, in her bathrobe.
"I know it's early," I blurted, "but I haven't slept all night and I thought -- well -- want to go for a walk?"
The moon was still out, mind you. But Mary Ann threw on some clothes and we set out, at a blistering pace, to talk ourselves through the first waking hour of the second-most difficult day in American history.
Crises have always driven me to my friends' doorsteps. Now I know that the reason is at least partly health-related. Stress makes us secrete oxytocin, the hormone that triggers milk letdown in nursing mothers, according to Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., professor of psychology at UCLA and author of The Tending Instinct. Not that we start suddenly lactating. But we women do feel a heightened desire to nurture -- to "tend and befriend," as Taylor puts it. We're more inclined to seek out friends and reach out to family. Social support brings down our blood pressure, signals our adrenal glands to stop pumping out corticosteroids, and voila! We feel less anxious, less overwrought, less overwhelmed. We may even live longer as a result of coping this way: Taylor says the friendship response to stress may explain why women outlive men.
So, do you have enough good friends? Are you making new ones?
I know, it's a challenge. We modern-day wives and mothers are breathtakingly busy. We're already scrambling to spend quality time with our kids; we're guilt-stricken about how little time is left over for our husbands; we're desperate for a little downtime for ourselves. Just how are we supposed to find the time to have a meaningful conversation with anyone outside our home or office?
Supposedly, cell phones and e-mails are the answer. They allow us to make use of those tiny windows of opportunity -- the "downtime" we experience while we're chauffeuring around our kids, for instance, or waiting for a plane or a doctor.
In my experience, however, real relationships are never built and rarely sustained on these info-bit exchanges. That's because one or both parties are doing something else while conversing: trawling the aisles of a supermarket, maybe, or driving the interstate. And when the person you're conversing with isn't able to give you her full attention, it's hard, if not impossible, to feel heard, let alone understood. It fails to comfort because it's not nurturing -- kind of the way popcorn fails to satisfy, even if you eat a bucketful, because it's not nourishing.
Worse, it's hard not to actively resent someone who demands your full attention when she's offering only half of hers. I have a neighbor who has a headset mobile phone. The minute she's in her car or otherwise multitasking, she puts in a call to me -- interrupting my family's dinner, summoning me in from the garden, waking us on Saturday morning on her way to soccer practice. And for what? The tiniest of questions, the most passing of thoughts, the slightest of impulses. She has, after all, "only a minute."
If I've learned anything in my harried life, it's that I won't just find the time for my friends; I have to make it. I've got to prioritize face time, schedule get-togethers, and then honor them instead of canceling at the last minute with a quick message left on the answering machine. In fact, anything administered in the way of a quick fix -- a volley of e-mails, a cell phone "check-in," even long messages left on the answering machine -- turns out to be counterproductive to real soul-restoring contact. And I can't be complacent about making new friendships, either. I have to put myself out there if I ever hope to meet others with whom I could have a connection.
As you sow, so shall you reap. That's what I tell myself whenever I think I cannot summon the energy or sacrifice the time needed to build up my friendship network. It helps to remind myself that for every hour I've given my full attention to my children or husband, I am enjoying the fruits tenfold. For every walk I've taken, every lunch I've shared, every souls-bared conversation I've held with friends, I am indeed more secure in my skin and more confident in my powers to cope.
But the payoff isn't just psychological. The support of a wide network of friends, in fact, may be the cheapest medicine you can buy. A considerable number of studies document the positive effects of social ties on physical health and longevity. One, from the Harvard School of Public Health, found that men with strong social ties had an 82 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than men who were more socially isolated. The study's lead author, Eric Rimm, Sc.D., associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition, believes the risk reduction is similar for women. As for keeping you young, a key predictor of physical and mental health as you age is your degree of social connections, says Gary Small, M.D., author of The Memory Bible and a professor of aging and psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine. "People who are socially involved live longer," he says. "They enjoy better overall health and have better cognitive functioning."
These are all pretty strong arguments for making time for the friends you have and for refining your befriending techniques. I have more priorities vying for my attention than I did 10 years ago, but I no longer waste time looking for love in all the wrong places. See if at least one of these tactics works for you: