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'Call Your Friends': The Importance Of Maintaining Friendships During The Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're all familiar with certain CDC recommendations - wash your hands, don't touch your face, avoid social gatherings. Well, here's a tip from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that we don't hear as often - call your friends. Lydia Denworth is here to explain why that's so important. She is author of "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, And Extraordinary Power Of Life's Fundamental Bond."

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LYDIA DENWORTH: Hi.

SHAPIRO: We're all familiar with the expression survival of the fittest. You say it's actually survival of the friendliest. What do you mean by that?

DENWORTH: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, the phrase survival of the fittest is usually understood to be all about fierce and even brutal competition for survival. But it turns out that cooperation has been at least as important as how good you were in a fight and that there were real evolutionary advantages to being good at making friends and maintaining those relationships. So being friendly...

SHAPIRO: OK, but in our present day, how do friendships improve our mental and physical well-being on a measurable scale?

DENWORTH: Oh, let me count the ways (laughter). So it increases your longevity and your - but more than that, it effects - well, friendship - your level of social integration, so either how connected you are or how isolated you are, effects cardiovascular functioning, immune system functioning, cognitive health, mental health and even the rate at which your cells age.

SHAPIRO: And does it matter whether we're sharing the same air or seeing each other's faces on FaceTime or Zoom or some other app?

DENWORTH: It does make a difference. So face-to-face interactions trigger more activity in the brain regions that are linked to social cognition and reward than other ways of connecting do. So eye contact really activates our communication circuits. But that said, you still get lots of benefits from virtual communication because hearing the voice of someone you care about can reduce your stress levels. And zoom video conference can make you feel connected and bonded, and that releases oxytocin, which makes us feel good. And even just, like, a text from a friend that makes you laugh is going to trigger endorphins, which also have a sort of positive effect on your health.

SHAPIRO: And do the same rules apply to adults and children? I'm thinking when kids are little, social interaction is such a huge part. Play is such an enormous part of their development.

DENWORTH: Oh, yes. It's critical, but it's also true that if really young kids in this moment, what they're - what they need most is their family and the sense from their parents that their parents are going to keep them safe, right? But they can find ways - I mean, they have to be creative and parents have to be creative about connecting them with their friends. Like, you know, going old school and becoming pen pals is one thing that comes to mind. But another thing I just think is interesting is for adolescents and kids who are a little older and have phones, you know, we're always so worried about how they don't connect in person, but it turns out, they're desperately missing each other. And they're coming up with very creative ways to see each other in person, which I think should be encouraging.

SHAPIRO: How do you think this moment is making people think differently about the role friends play in all of our lives?

DENWORTH: I think that this crisis has reminded us to not take friendship for granted. You know, you could say absence is making the heart grow fonder all over the world. And before this, what I found is that we think we appreciate friendship and most of us say that we prioritize it, but actually we cancel on friends all the time. And when we get busy, they're the first thing to go. And what I hope is that when this is all over, we will not go back to those old ways and that we will make friendship a priority. And this should give us permission to do that, to go hang out with our friends and, you know, fall into their arms with joy when it's safe to do that.

SHAPIRO: I look forward to the day.

Lydia Denworth's book is "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, And Extraordinary Power Of Life's Fundamental Bond." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.