The Healing Power of Friendship
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The Healing Power of Friendship

Strong friendships may be the most important stress-fighter you have.

Fun and Functional

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.

Female friends laughing
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Socializing has proven health

"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?

Making Time

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.

Knitting the Network

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Gal pals are good for your

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:

  • Find something larger than yourself to force relationship-building time into your schedule. I've filled up a whole new page in my address book with women who are walking with me on an Avon breast cancer three-day fund-raiser. The event bonds us on a number of levels: We all have to train for the 60-mile walk, we all have to raise thousands of dollars, and we all feel there's no copping out. I meet four fellow walkers Thursday mornings, two on Sunday afternoons, and one every Tuesday evening, which shoehorns six hours of uninterrupted gab time into my week. I'd never have prioritized either the walking or the talking if I hadn't committed myself to something this gigantic.
  • Don't wait to be invited. Nobody ever asked me to join a book club. So I started one. A friend of mine and I each invited three of our non-mutual friends to participate in a once-a-month discussion. We established important ground rules, such as 1) it helps to have read the book, 2) all diets are suspended for the evening, 3) wine goes just fine with chocolate cake, and 4) even though literature is the topic of the day, at least an hour will be devoted to discussing our husbands, children and neighbors. We're in our 10th year.
  • Confide your worst fears to absolute strangers. A good way to bypass all that nasty one-upmanship women engage in when they feel insecure is to simply throw your insecurity on the table. I got to know my new friend Adriane when I announced at a Girl Scout function that I was ready to set my hair on fire with regard to my son's academic difficulties. Because Adriane had a daughter with similar issues, she couldn't do enough to hook me up with people she'd found helpful.
  • Throw a party where the guest of honor does all the inviting. There's no network more instant than your friend's friends. I met four women I intend to know better by hosting my pal Gina's afternoon birthday party. Gina came up with the invitation list; I furnished the Pinot Grigio, the pasta salad, and the two-hour window in which we got to know each other without it seeming like we were trying. Each guest was told to bring a funny story about Gina instead of a gift, which I must say worked even better than the wine to loosen up the crowd. Lots of children got home that afternoon to find their moms in downright better moods than usual.
  • Get a hobby you need help on. I took up knitting on a whim. Alarmingly, the sweater I was making quickly took on the proportions of a fire hydrant. I asked everyone I knew if they could help me and lo! I met Elise, a knitter who taught me the importance of not fudging the gauge. I also learned that you can share an awful lot about yourself while unraveling 500 yards of worsted.
  • Take a class. What could be more efficient in steering you to like-minded individuals than a course catalog? Sign up for a seminar if you can, instead of a large lecture: It's easier to zero in on a compatible classmate when you can sit back and listen to what she has to contribute. (And if you don't click with your classmates, there's always the professor to befriend. That's how I met Nina, who introduced me to all her colleagues, so now I don't even have to pay tuition to hear what they have to say.)
  • Remember that watching Friends isn't the same as having them. I know the temptation: You just want to zone out. You want to vegetate. You want to recharge your batteries with an hour or two of passive entertainment. But remember, none of those fascinating TV characters are ever going to take you out for your birthday or bring your family lasagne when you've got the flu. Same with those Internet liaisons. Sure, it's possible one might turn out to be your best friend for life and live in the next town over, but hey -- maybe you'll win the lottery, too. Real relationships require real face time. Don't let TV -- or any other virtual reality -- rob you of it.