The Science of Friendshipđź“š

One of the first books on our reading list when we started the research process for LOF was Lydia Denworth’s latest work, Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. This sweeping compilation of the emerging science behind our basic human need to connect fascinated us and inspired us to continue laying the foundation for our blog and our podcast. As soon as we finished reading the book, we contacted Lydia to ask a few follow-up questions, and she was kind enough to indulge us. 

LOF: Your book opens with observation of monkeys on the Island of Cayo Santiago and later explores baboon behavior at Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. In your opinion, what are the most important lessons we can learn about human friendships from the research into social interactions between primates? 

LD: Non-human primates are our closest ancestors. Their social behavior has much in common with ours and their brains are quite similar, too. It was by finding friendship or something like it in other species that scientists began to understand that friendship isn’t just cultural, but biological and part of our evolutionary story. It turns out that there have been real evolutionary advantages to being good at making and maintaining friends. You could say that we have seen a survival of the friendliest.  

LOF: The concept of friendship does not fit neatly into an obvious category of scientific study. As a result, your book surveys the science from a number of academic disciplines. Is there one area of study that you felt best captured the science of friendship? Or, do you feel this subject is by nature multidisciplinary? 

LD: Friendship is definitely multidisciplinary because there are so many ways to approach studying it. What’s so interesting is taking what evolutionary biologists find in baboons and rhesus macaques and comparing it with what social epidemiologists, neuroscientists, developmental psychologists and others find in humans. Each discipline adds a piece to the puzzle and together they give us a clearer picture of what friends are really for.  

LOF: One of the most surprising findings from a 2018 Cigna poll was that 18-22 year-olds reported the highest levels of loneliness. What factors do you believe have contributed to what may be a growing sense of isolation among young adults?  

LD: I think what’s striking there is not so much that this is a new trend but that we so often don’t think of young people as lonely. We worry about older adults. But in truth, almost everyone experiences loneliness at some point, and it’s good to be reminded that young people suffer from it, too. I know others will say that social media is to blame, but the latest research is actually not so convincing on that front. I think that the period from 18 to 22 is a time of great transition in life. We are thrust into new environments where we must make new friends and forge new identities. That can be thrilling but it can also be lonely. 

LOF: In Chapter 7 of your book, you explored the research on the effects of technology on friendship in the digital age, and the results seemed mixed. What did you find most interesting about the ways digital technology was found to impact social connection? 

LD: Recently, there has been more rigorous research on the effects of social media and digital technology on psychological well-being. It shows that a lot of the early reports about how terrible technology was for us were overblown. There are both positive and negative effects from social media and technology, but all of the effects are small (at a population level) and the effect on connection and relationships is positive overall. 

I thought it was interesting to see how much our online and offline lives tend to mirror each other—if we have a larger social network in real life, we are likely to have a larger network online as well. It’s also true that the more channels (i.e., in person, social media, phone, etc) that we use to connect with any one person, the stronger that relationship will be. And finally, we are smart enough to know the difference between a deep friendship and a Facebook friendship. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction with the people you love and I hope, post-Covid, we all go hug our best friends.  

LOF: What spurred you to embark on this comprehensive study of the research into friendship? 

LD: As a science journalist, my job is to listen to scientists talk about what’s interesting to them. When I heard them talking so much about friendship, I was intrigued. Friendship is so familiar that we think we know all about it, but I realized there is still much to learn. The story of how we came to understand its deep connection to our health and happiness seemed like a tale worth telling.   

LOF: Has doing this research on friendship had an effect on you? Has it changed the way you view the friendships in your own life? 

LD: I’m working hard on taking my own advice. Friendship is as important to your health as diet or exercise over the long haul. That means it’s not a luxury, or something to squeeze in after everything else, but a basic necessity and a priority. I give myself permission to hang out with my friends (mostly on Zoom or outdoor walks these days, of course) and I recognize that I’m doing something good for my health. I hope you and your readers will do the same! 

LOF: Thank you for that reminder, Lydia. We appreciate the scope of your work on this topic. Thank you for sharing your time and talent with us. 

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