The Power of Friendship

Look to friends for support, strength and smiles

When my baby girl, Piper, took her first steps, I called a girlfriend to share the great news. When I made lasagna for the first time, I shared my triumph with another girlfriend so she could ooh and ahh over my emerging culinary skills. And when my mother did things that make me crazy, I shared stories with a pal who knows just how I feel.

No matter what life serves up, it usually comes with a side of conversation and support from the girls. And though we rarely solve life’s biggest challenges, we always find a way to laugh, lament and move on.

That kind of social support is a proven antidote to stress, which contributes to heart disease and chronic illnesses. According to University of Michigan researchers, friendships among women actually lower stress and increase progesterone levels, which promotes overall well-being.

Friendships have also been shown to lower blood pressure levels, decrease cholesterol and even increase our longevity, says Irene Levine, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. And the benefits of friendship go deeper than good health.

“Friendships are so pivotal in our lives that they help us define who we are and who we will become,” Levine says.

According to her, early on, women learn about themselves by watching and modeling their sisters and mothers. We learn about our values and interests and expand our horizons and experiences through our friendships. In fact, Levine says we are influenced, often toward healthier behaviors, by our girlfriends. Healthy friendships can help us grow and get better.

"When you find a friend you can be honest and open with, you get a new perspective,” she explains. "It’s different than the relationship you have with a sibling or spouse. A relationship with a spouse is legal, and one with a sister is based on blood. In some cases a friendship can be stronger and more substantial, because friendship is voluntary. It’s totally optional. You choose the friend you want.”

Too often, though, friendships among women get short changed or neglected. We transition into the world of adult responsibilities and our focus shifts to our children, families, work. Friends slip away. Levine insists that women who do maintain their friendships feel better and are usually better wives and mothers because they feel supported.

How to stay in touch

Levine offers these ideas for keeping close.

Establish rituals. Plan a monthly dinner, a regular weekend walk or an occasional manicure meet-up. Make time for a regular get-together and protect that time to connect.

Go beyond the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and other social media are great tools for making introductions, reconnecting with lost friends or even keeping connected with your closest buddies. But don’t count on Facebook alone to fuel your friendships. Since the Internet is not a substitute for face-to-face conversations, it’s also important to remember that feelings and comments can be easily misinterpreted via e-mail.

Stay flexible. People and preferences change, and so do needs and schedules. Stay open and adaptable. Let the structure of the friendship change and grow along with the people involved.

“You may have times in life when friends become more distant than they have been in the past,” Levine says. “And then those same friends will connect years later. Friendships are fluid, growing and moving throughout a life.”

It’s important that women allow for friendships to shift and grow in a way that is comfortable for everyone involved, she adds.

Finding new friends

Friendships are bound to change — and some will even end. The average friendship lasts seven years, usually because our lives change. For example, friendships made at work may end after retirement. But those changes allow you to strengthen your social network by creating opportunities for you to connect with new people.

Here are some ways to create new social connections:

Open up to the possibilities. Pursue your interests — go to the gym, take a class, volunteer at school, surf the Internet. Do what you enjoy and you’re likely to meet people who share common goals and interests. That’s a good opening for friendship.

Be diverse. You don’t necessarily need a gaggle of girlfriends to be happy, but no one person can or should be expected to satisfy every need. Depending solely on the support of one friend can make it hard if the two of you grow apart. Look for ways to broaden your social network by befriending a neighbor you like, an old friend from school or a co-worker.

Smile and be accessible. Smile and strike up a conversation with someone over a common interest, like your mutual love of Pilates. Be sincere and friendly.

Be patient. Beware of coming on too strong, pushing too fast, acting too needy. That’s a turn-off to any relationship. Let the friendship develop slowly and naturally.

Connect at work. Workplace friendships actually enhance productivity and make people feel happier and supported on the job. Be open, accessible and involved at work, and chances are you’ll form some lasting connections with people you feel comfortable sharing with.

Women just feel better when they can share the feelings and ideas and details of their lives, Levine says. “Women are hard-wired to express their emotions. They want to be with their friends, talking. Friendships give women a chance to express emotions and feel understood.”

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