The Science of Female Friendship: 4 Ways That Girlfriends Are Good for Your Health
You know your girlfriends will always be there for you, but here are some facts about why, adapted from Suzanne Braun Levine’s You Gotta Have Girlfriends.
The Cuddle Hormone
Studies show that when we are doing whatever girlfriends do together, our bodies produce oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” (because it is released in nursing mothers). Unlike husbands or kids, who are often the cause of anxiety, our friends consistently elicit that warm glow, which feels good and soothes anxiety. A Swedish study even found that people with broad networks of friends were the lowest risk group for dementia.
Studies of female primates show the same phenomenon: Hanging out with a small but trusted group of other females reduces damaging spikes in stress hormones, reports New York Times science writer Natalie Angier. A circle of trust can, as she puts it, “mop up the cortisol spills that can weaken the immune system,” which in turn can support additional years of good health.
Forget “fight or flight.” It’s all about “tend and befriend.”
Women respond to danger by gathering in a mutually supportive group, while men show a “fight or flight” surge of adrenaline. It used to be thought that all humans exhibited “fight or flight” responses, but recent work (by a team of women scientists at UCLA led by Shelley E. Taylor) found that women are wired somewhat differently, so that our reaction to a crisis is more likely to be a more diplomatic, “tend and befriend” approach, which again reduces tension.
That conciliatory response may also make women more creative and calm in a crisis, because the “fight or flight” response is produced in the primitive (“reptilian”) part of the brain, which shuts down most rational resources in order to concentrate on physical strength and agility.
Cool! But what is “tend and befriend” exactly?
The UCLA scientists who identified “tend and befriend” as a distinctly female response first observed the gender-specific behaviors in their own lab. When something went wrong, the men would storm into their offices and slam the doors, while the women would come out of their offices and make coffee. We don’t need scientists to tell us that an old-fashioned coffee klatch with the girls is one of the many ways we tend and befriend one another, but it is nice to know that along with our lattes, we are getting a biochemical boost.
We even get a little dessert with our latte. Natalie Angier, writing about how women interact, reports on an experiment in which women were invited to play a game; they had to choose either a cooperative or competitive strategy. Brain imaging showed that the brains lit up most brightly among the women who chose cooperation and increased as cooperation continued. The areas of the brain that lit up were those that, according to Angier, also respond to “chocolate, pretty faces, money, cocaine, and a range of licit and illicit delights.”
And, of course, your friends are good for you because laughter really is the best medicine.
Laughter may be our most precious gift to one another; it is a powerful elixir (in fact, the act of laughing releases endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals). It is very rare to spend more than a few minutes with a girlfriend when there isn’t a burst of laughter, no matter whatever else is going on. Gestalt therapist Ilana Rubenfeld calls humor “a martial art” because it cuts a frightening situation down to size. In addition, the physical exercise of a hearty laugh, not unlike orgasm, is a good, endorphin-releasing workout.