We give ourselves credit for plenty of things: nailing a project at work, making killer overnight oats, shaving our legs regularly (well, at least in warm weather). But there’s one thing women ought to take pride in more often, and that’s how much we rock at friendship. Whether single or married, 22 or 78, we know just how to cultivate, appreciate, and enjoy connections with our girls.
While the sexes may equally value friendship, we experience the bond on different levels. “Women tend to have more intimate friendships than men do,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever. A 2015 study of social media profile photos published in Plos One confirmed what many of us have noticed: Guys gravitate toward larger, looser groups of casual buddies, while women prefer fewer besties, forming deeper and more time-consuming friendships. The researchers noted that this pattern is also evident in chimpanzees, suggesting that our pal style “may long predate the evolution of our species.”
But make no mistake—nurture plays a role, says Shasta Nelson, CEO of the friendship-matching site GirlFriendCircles.com and author of Frientimacy. Girls are taught to be masters of positivity (think giving pep talks), consistency (making plans), and vulnerability (sharing emotions). “We live in a society that expects these skills of women,” points out Nelson, “so we’re more practiced at them.”
Not only are we amazing at friendship, but according to science, it’s good for us—both now and as we age. So next time you ditch your family for girls’ night out, tell them it’s medicinal. (Even though, sadly, insurance won’t reimburse you for the round of margaritas.)
1. Friends are preventive medicine
It’s more than just your pal bringing over soup when you’re sick: Having good friends can help protect your body from stress. In a series of studies conducted at the University of Virginia, people were faced with the threat of getting an electric shock either while solo or while holding a friend’s hand. MRI scans revealed that in those clinging to a pal, the brain regions that sense danger were significantly less active.
Our besties may even provide a buffer against cancer. In an assessment of 2,835 women with breast cancer in the Nurses’ Health Study, those with no close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as the women with 10 or more close friends. Other research has shown that the more socially connected people are, the lower their blood pressure when they get older.
That well-being boost may translate to the ultimate payoff: a longer life. A meta-analysis of studies from Brigham Young University found that people with strong social relationships had a 50 percent greater chance of living longer than those with weaker ties. The researchers concluded that a lack of social interaction can pose as much of an early-death risk as smoking and alcoholism, and a higher risk than obesity and physical inactivity. There you go: yet more motivation to quit playing text tag and schedule that catch-up dinner.
2. They protect your mood
Pals not only provide support, they can have Prozac-like powers, too. An English study revealed that people with depression doubled their chances of bouncing back if they had enough friends with “healthy mood.” Data from 4,739 people followed for 20 years in the renowned Framingham Heart Study demonstrated that those with positive peers were likely to become happy in the future. It pays to get out and have fun with a bunch of them, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health: Women who have 10 or more friends to socialize with experience better psychological well-being in midlife than those who have fewer. There’s a reason Nelson refers to close friendships as “gyms for our souls.”
3. The right mates make you strong
Not feeling your workout lately? Rope in a friend, ideally a really fit one. Doing physical activity with a companion who’s in top shape makes you go at it harder than if you exercised with a less in-shape one, per a study from Santa Clara University’s department of psychology. (Although your super-buff pal won’t reap added fitness benefits by working out with you, she will be racking up some serious karma points.)
It’s no wonder, then, that buddies are one another’s best weight watchers. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that when overweight people were grouped with friends or family as part of a weight-loss program, they lost 6 1⁄2 more pounds and shaved an extra 1 1⁄4 inches off their waists than those who just received info on diet and exercise. Why’s that? The study authors quote an African proverb: “If you wish to go fast, go alone. But if you wish to go far, go together.”