When attorneys think about working long hours, they are quite aware that more time at the office comes at a cost. For instance, it can result in less sleep, less exercise and higher level of stress. It can also mean that we are not spending as much time cultivating friendships.
How important is this loss of social connection? It’s critically important in some obvious ways. For instance, friends help us out when we are in need of emotional support. We share information and tools with friends. We share stories. Friends help us create meaning in our respective worlds. Research is now showing that having a vibrant circle of friends relates directly to our health. Robin Dunbar spells out the importance of maintaining friendships in his new book, Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships (2021).
Friendship and loneliness are two sides of the same social coin, and we lurch through life from one to the other. What has surprised medical researchers over the last decade or so is just how dramatic the effects of having friendships actually are —not just for our happiness, but also for our health, wellbeing, and even how long we live. We do not cope well with isolation. Friendship, however, is a two-way process that requires both parties to be reasonably accommodating and tolerant of each other, to be willing to spare time for each other. Nowhere has this been so obvious as in the modern world. Just when we might think social life couldn’t get better, suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of a plague of loneliness.
How serious is the lack of well-maintained friendship?
Loneliness is turning out to be the modern killer disease, rapidly replacing all the more usual candidates as the commonest cause of death . . . . Perhaps the most surprising finding to emerge from the medical literature over the past two decades has been the evidence that the more friends we have, the less likely we are to fall prey to diseases, and the longer we will live.
Pages 4, 6.
Recent research shows that having healthy relationships increases your ability to survive heart attacks and strokes by as much as 50 per cent. Dunbar comments that the only other factor this important is giving up smoking:
[Y]ou can eat as much as you like, drink as much alcohol as you want, slob about as much as you fancy, fail to do your exercises and live in as polluted an atmosphere as you can find, and you will barely notice the difference. But having no friends or not being involved in community activities will dramatically affect how long you live. That’s not to say that all these other things make no difference, of course.
Additional research shows the effect on our immune systems. The number of friends we have affects how well we respond to the flu vaccine.
There was also an independent effect of the number of friends they had: those with only four to twelve friends had significantly poorer responses than those with thirteen to twenty friends. These two effects seemed to interact with each other: having many friends (a large social group of nineteen or twenty friends) always seems to buffer you against a weakened immune response, but feeling lonely and having few friends results in a very poor immune response.
Dunbar, a primatologist, has written an engaging book filled with facts. Dunbar is well known in science-circles as the person who uncovered the “Dunbar Number,” which holds (based upon observations of other primates in the wild and comparisons of size of the respective neocortex of the various species) that there is cognitive limit to the number of people each of us is capable of maintaining as friends. The discussion of the “Dunbar Number” is discussed in detail in this book, but the bottom line is that each of us is capable of meaningfully maintaining, at most, about 150 stable relationships—that is our cognitive limit.
If scientific research on the meaning of friendships interests you, there is a lot more waiting for you in Dunbar’s book. In the meantime, don’t overlook your friendships. All work and no play make Jack and Jill dull . . . and at risk for shortened lives.