Friends and (not with) Benefits
Here is an excerpt from my book ‘Live Work Love: #Add10QualityYears’. Available on Amazon.
“Relationships come and go but friends are for life.” – Somebody that I used to know
The British Medical Journal in August 1999 published a study of 3000 people aged over 65 that they followed for 13 years. The study tracked their participation in activities such as swimming, walking, shopping, volunteer work, social group activities and so forth. It transpires that social engagement is the best medicine.
Thomas Glass at Harvard’s School of Public Health studied 2761 people over 13 years and their socialising, concluding that it could increase longevity by 20%. As the Harvard Gazette put it, “Scientists are always coming up with ways for older people to live healthier and longer lives, such as doing exercises they can’t or don’t want to do. Now, researchers have found an easier way: people 65 years and older can extend their lives by doing things that are easy and enjoyable, like going to church or movies, shopping, gardening, and even playing bingo.”
“Such activities should not replace exercise,” Glass cautions, “but exclusive emphasis on exercise may be overly narrow. It is clear from our study that social engagement can have as much effect on prolonging life as fitness activities.” The smart move at whatever age is to double up and participate in exercise-based social activities. Notice now the massive increase in the popularity of group sessions at gyms and with personal trainers. It’s not just another way for gyms to charge multiple people at once instead of a single-customer personal training session. The evidence suggests you might get as much benefit from the interaction as from the exertion. The exercises might change by the time you’re 70 but the social benefits remain the same.
The Harvard Gazette went on to report that Glass admits he doesn’t know precisely why. However, he believes that keeping social and busy “evokes changes in the brain that protect against cognitive decline. This, in turn, influences physical processes regulated by the brain such as cellular immunity or mobilizing the body’s defences against disease.”
In other research, Glass and two colleagues tracked the effect of social disengagement on 2,812 people 65 years and older for 12 years. They found the odds of experiencing cognitive decline were approximately twice as great in those reporting no social ties than in those who had frequent contact with relatives and friends, attended religious services, or participated in regular social activities.
Another study revealed that rats who sustain brain injury and who socialize and have fun during recovery do much better than those who are socially isolated, even when both groups receive optimum physical care. This is why I’m not a scientist – I don’t know what rats do for fun.
We get influenced by the habits of our friends. We get a sense of belonging, purpose and self worth. It also works the other way though. For example, 56% of people trying to eat healthily will eat crap to avoid insulting a host, boss, client or family member. 51% will eat crap to fit in with the group. So, it pays to choose our friends wisely and ‘audit’ your ongoing value to each other.
If you have a best friend at work, you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job.
Friends have a powerful social influence. For one obvious example, be observant the next time you’re out for dinner with a group of friends and you get to that point of the evening when the waiter or waitress shows up and asks, “Would anyone like to see the dessert menu?” I’d gotten into the habit of saying something witty about just having a look, or at least something as witty as I was capable of after however much wine had entered my system before dessert. (ie most of it.) Now, I shut up and watch. You should too. The most common group dynamic when that question is asked is a fleeting flurry of eye contact amongst all members of the table. Each member of the group is determining their response to the question based on their perception of the likely reaction of everyone else. Again, the first person to react over-influences the subsequent responses of everyone else.
The restaurants know this. It is in their interest to sell more desserts and to keep you drinking the higher profit margin drinks, and if you stay for dessert, you’ll be there longer and you’ll get more drinks. Again, observe the waiter or waitress. They do not just ask the general group of people at the table a question. The question is directed at the person they think is most likely to answer, “Yes.” Just like lions hunting gazelles, the restaurants prey on the weakest member of the herd. And, in your group of friends, you all know who that is. If you don’t, it’s you.
Psychological priming is where a behaviour can be steered by exposure to a previous stimulus. Give two groups of research participants free cookies while filling in a fake quiz but expose one group to the smell of cleaning products and you’ll find the clean smell-primed group tidies up their crumbs and plates twice as often. The social influence of friends and menu choices is a form of priming. But priming doesn’t work if you know it is happening. So, armed with this knowledge, take a bit more control over what you consume and spend. Tell your friends. That’s what friends are for.
In a very recent piece of research, ‘Bad Boys: The Effect of Criminal Identity on Dishonesty,’ Alain Cohn, Michel Andre Marechal, and Thomas Noll reveal a potential negative application of priming effects that you and I might be able to flip and use with our friends to more positive ends. In a maximum security prison they had prisoners privately toss coins and then say how many times the coin landed heads. The more heads turned up, the more money the prisoners got paid. The researchers couldn’t tell if any single prisoner was honest or dishonest but they did know that on average heads comes up half the time, so they can assess in aggregate how much lying there is. Before the study, they had half the prisoners answer the question “What were you convicted for?” and the other half “How many hours per week do you watch television on average?” The result: 66% heads in the treatment where they ask about convictions and “only” 60% heads in the TV treatment. Being reminded or primed about their dishonesty drove greater dishonesty in their behaviour.
How dishonest are prisoners versus everyday people? When they play the same game with regular citizens, the coin supposedly comes up heads 56% of the time. Most people are also dishonest but less so than primed or unprimed prisoners.
Flipping this notion of priming, we need to find ways of subtly ‘reminding’ ourselves or our loved ones that we are the sort of person who behaves in ways that support us in boosting our healthy and productive lifestyles. This would vary from person to person and over time. One suggestion might be agreeing to exchange a daily text at an agreed time with a buddy. Nothing arduous, mentally taxing, syrupy or faux motivational – just some words about whatever it is you’re trying to support each other on. Remind them that they are whatever they need to be. Routinise it and prioritise it.
A University of Virginia study looked at participants sent out to estimate the steepness of a hill before setting out to climb it with a weighted backpack. Half the participants had a friend with them and half did not. Those with friends guessed lower steepness levels and the longer the friendships with their climbing companions, the greater the underestimation of steepness. Having a friend with you not only lowers your stress levels as we’ve identified earlier, it makes the task ahead seem less foreboding. And we know how our perceptions and preconceptions can affect us physically.
Even if your buddy and you end up in a debate over things, that’s not inherently bad. In fact, it is really only your good friends with whom you can genuinely argue and care about the meaning of the result. Arguments with friends stimulate the plasticity of the brain. Surround yourself with people with helpful values, not necessarily the same as yours. Identify your ‘inner circle.’ Be likeable. Create time and opportunities to be together.
If you want to broaden or replace your social circuit, here are some tips:
- Walk your dog (or child.) At least, they’ll be good conversation starters,
- Work out,
- Do lunch,
- Accept the next 3 invitations you get regardless,
- Attend community events,
- Take classes,
- Fake a faith. (Faith is like sincerity, in that if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.)
Social isolation is a major risk factor. Having no friends or low-interaction friends is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as dangerous as being an alcoholic and twice as harmful as obesity. In a six-year study of 736 middle-age Swedish men, attachment to a single person didn’t appear to affect the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, but having friendships did. Only smoking was as important a risk factor as lack of social support.
The New York Times reported on some sub-research by a pair of social scientists named Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler using the information collected over the years by the Framingham Heart Study. Founded in 1948 by the National Heart Institute, the study follows more than 15,000 Framingham residents and their descendants, bringing them in to a doctor’s office every four years, on average, for a comprehensive physical. By analysing the Framingham data, Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviours, like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy, pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influence each another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviours — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems. Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people.
You don’t need a lot of friends but you do need the right ones.
So next time you suggest to someone that you become ‘friends with benefits’, be sure to stress that you mean health benefits…
“Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.” – Oscar Wilde
That was an excerpt from my book ‘Live Work Love: #Add10QualityYears’. Available on Amazon.