Friendship: The What, Why and How of a Cornerstone of Life

Lydia Denworth

Lydia Denworth, Catalyst Podcast
Catalyst - Health, Wellness & Performance Podcast

Full Transcript

Dr. Cooper

Welcome to the latest episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness and Performance Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Bradford Cooper of the Catalyst Coaching Institute, and if you’re new here, welcome. You chose a good one to jump in on. Today’s guest is bestselling author of the book Friendship Lydia Denworth. Lydia is a science journalist who investigates everything from Alzheimer’s to zebrafish and digs into how we think, learn, and connect. Most likely you’ve read her work. Today we’ll be taking an engaging dive into the concept of friendship from why it matters to how to improve the ones we have. Now, today is exactly 30 days out from our next at home health and wellness coach certification that takes place on June 13th if you’re planning on joining us, don’t wait. The May course filled an entire month early and it seems to get earlier each time. Now, if you’re just in the early stages of pondering this idea of becoming a certified health and wellness coach, totally fine. We just put together a what we’re calling a six pack of resources for anyone who’s just kind of in that discovery phase and that’s available at the new health wellness and performance coaching YouTube channel and we’ll have a link to it down below. As always, feel free to just reach out to us if you want to talk it over, the email is Re[email protected] and we’ll set up some time to chat and you can always pop over to our website, CatalystCoachingInstitute.com, we’ve got all kinds of resources there for you. Now this is our chance to learn all the ins and outs of friendship with Lydia Denworth on the latest episode of the Catalyst Health Wellness and Performance podcast.

Dr. Cooper

Lydia, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lydia Denworth

Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Dr. Cooper

I loved your book. I had a chance to really dig into it this last week and just underlines everywhere. As I mentioned in the introduction, you, you’ve kind of written as a who’s who of magazines and newspapers, so how did you end up here? I understand you majored in history, interesting background and then you ended up writing about science. Talk to us about how you got here.

Lydia Denworth

Ah, yes. Well the science is the part that is probably most surprising for people who, who knew me back when. I, um, I’ve always been interested in journalism and always wanted to be a journalist and have been from, for my entire adult life. But I, I took the least amount of science possible in high school and college. I freely admit it and yeah, I didn’t think I was, I didn’t think it was my thing. And um, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find myself so immersed in the fascinating world of science. Um, and I think while it can be very helpful to, um, be a science journalist with a science background and there are a lot of those out there, it’s also sometimes a good thing too to be in my position because my job is to explain things in a way that I can understand or the old me, right, can understand. I mean, part of how I got here is because I had a pretty successful career in journalism before I got into science. So I worked on staff at some major magazines early on and then I freelanced. Um, but I, I made the pivot, uh, in really in my first book, which, um, was an environmental science book and I got interested in it more from a health perspective. And then I ended up having to write about some very technical science in that book. And I discovered, you know, I was a little freaked out at the time, um, when I would get the original documents of these journal articles on geochemistry and I, I thought, Oh boy, this is, this is a little intimidating. What have I gotten myself into? But it turned out that by sort of just doggedly working my way through the materials and then a lot of interviews, a lot of discussions with, you know, and, and, and a willingness to admit ignorance and to keep asking questions constantly. Um, I, I turned out to be not bad at writing about science and, um, and it just felt really important and interesting. It’s a great story. Science is story. It’s a process. It’s a, it’s about understanding what goes on in the world, what we know about it, what we don’t know, how it changes. Um, and in fact, my history major in college I feel has served me well and every one of my books has a lot of kind of history of science in it. And, and you know, beginning the story of where, where did the science begin in this question, whatever it is. In this case of friendship, what did we know about relationships? Why didn’t we think they mattered as much as they do? And then how did we figure out that they did? You know, that’s a history story as well as a science story.

Dr. Cooper

Well, and I think it comes out so well in your book because you’re exactly right. Most of the folks that are going to read that book or any book, they’re not, they’re not deep in the science. They want to know how does this apply to me? How do I use this? What, what does this study mean in my life? So very well done. Very well done.

Lydia Denworth

Well, thank you

Dr. Cooper

We look at connection as being the fourth pillar of wellness when we talk about health and wellness. So we’ve got move, fuel, rest and connect. So the fact that you’re able to join us and talk us through this key area of friendship is fantastic. I’m really excited about today. What were some of the key findings? Obviously there’s a lot of depth to this book. We’re just gonna be able to scratch the surface. But what were some of the key findings you discovered as you researched the topic?

Lydia Denworth

Well, I’m thrilled that you have connect as one of your pillars of wellness because that is, is one of the major findings is the way I put it is that friendship is as important for your health as diet and exercise. And I don’t think that people fully get that. Um, we know, we’ve always known that friendship is lovely and pleasurable. Most people think that, um, there’s some misanthropic people out there, um, but, or some introverts or you know, and we can get into that later. But, um, but what is new about the science of friendship is that there is this biology to it, that it shapes your biology and it, and it can change the trajectory of your life. Um, and in addition to that, that there’s an evolutionary story here, um, that just as much as there has been competition and what everybody thinks of as survival of the fittest there has also been survival of the friendliest and, um, and that the fact that that exists actually across species, um, in a lot of other species and not just in humans tells us something really different about friendship from how most people think of it. Most people think friendship is cultural and of course it is. There’s plenty of culture to it. Um, how you do your friendship might have something to do with the culture in which you grow up. But the drive to connect is much more fundamental than that. It’s really part of human infrastructure and, and so that, that’s both just cool I think. But you know, I nerd out about these things, what I find. But, um, but also really important to know because it kind of explains what’s going on in the body and why. I mean, you know, we’re, we’re driven to connect and then there’s something we get for it. And th these, these health benefits now that we’re beginning to understand them better are, are exactly that. Are what we get as the sort of benefit of, of connecting.

Dr. Cooper

So let’s build on that a little bit. You, you know, early in your book, I, I jotted a note down, it was page 73 that social relationships, they frankly constitute a major risk factor. I mean, we’re talking smoking, blood pressure, lipids, obesity, activity. Can you, can you take us on a, a quick version of a little more depth on that one?

Lydia Denworth

Well, so what’s really interesting about this, I mean, gosh, there’s so much to say. It’s trying to figure out how to, how to, what to hit here. But, um, but when, when people first started to guess that social relationships were a factor in health, um, it was, it was, it was a couple decades ago. It was in the seventies and eighties. And, um, and they basically were able to show at the beginning a correlation meaning just that, you know, gosh, it seems that people who are more socially connected also seem to live longer. Right? These two things are true, but it didn’t have to be true that one caused the other or had an effect on it. And the work that has happened subsequently gets at that, at that question of, well, why, why would this be so? And what is it that social relationships are doing inside the body? Because you know, it’s easy to understand why what you eat would have an effect on your health or that getting out and going for a run gets your blood going and gets your muscles moving so you can sort of more easily imagine the connection to your physical state or health. Right? But a social relationship, especially a friendship that exists entirely outside the body. Like, why would that get, why would your cells care about that, why would your, you know. And so I tend to think that, so one of the most powerful things that we know and that made it clear that there was something more going on here is, is this, let me see if I can tell the story in a concise way. But back at the beginning when they first made that establish that link between or that possible correlation, right between social relationships and health, one of the main theories was that a concept called social support was what was at work. And social support is essentially exactly what you imagined friendship to be in many ways. Like the idea that maybe your friend would help you stop smoking or encourage you to stop smoking or that, you know, they will bring over their lasagna if you, um, you know, if somebody dies and they’ll be there for you or they’ll be there to babysit and most significantly they might be there for an instance to drive you to the hospital should you need to go. And so it could just be that somebody who, with more people in their life is more likely to have people around to help them stay healthy. Right? It’s a resource. Okay. So that was the initial idea and that, and there’s truth to that, but it turns out to be more than that.

Lydia Denworth

And I’ll tell you the real reason we know this is because I mentioned earlier researching other species. So just like we’ve been following humans for decades, there are primatologists who have been following monkeys and apes for decades. And in baboons, especially in Africa, these long running studies found that even baboons who have the strongest social bonds turn out to live longer, be healthier, have more healthy, healthier babies. And in an evolutionary terms, you basically can’t do better than reproductive success and longevity. It’s what you’re after, right? And baboons do not drive each other to the hospital, right? They don’t come over with lasagna. And so, so there had to be something more that the social relationships were doing. And so now what we know is that not, there’s still more to discover but, but what scientists talk about pathways and mechanisms in the body. So you know the things that, that relationships are connected to now are your cardiovascular functioning. So your blood pressure, right and your propensity to heart disease and heart attacks, your immune system function and how resilient or or susceptible you are to disease, your sleep quality, your cognitive health, your mental health, your stress responses and stress probably is bigger than just one thing in my list here because stress, a lot of people I think know that a little bit of stress can be good for you and kind of amp you up to perform on a test or in a, you know, play off game or something like that. But sustained chronic stress is where your body starts to break down under the depression. Right? And so social relationships, good, strong social relationships seem to reduce stress levels and they literally reduce the activity of the stress systems in your body. So like your HPA axis in your brain and things like that. And your levels of cortisol, which is the, um, you know, spikes when you’re under stress and, um, all that gets calmed down by, by good, healthy relationships and amped up by negative relationships. Right. And so, um, so stress probably then triggers some of the other things that I mentioned if it’s left unchecked. Um, but so all of these things, um, I mean, I, they’re all measured in different ways, so it’s hard to sort of just concisely say, well, this is what happens, you know, here in your, in your blood pressure. But, but suffice it to say the important thing for people to understand is that your friendships, um, and, and we can get into why I’m saying it’s friendship and not, and not limited to other relationships, but your friendships are having an effect on all of those parts of your health. And cumulatively that adds up to how healthy, happy and how long you live.

Dr. Cooper

Wow. All right. So knowing that, and again, folks, there’s more in this book, so dig in, but what are some of the most important lessons for developing a meaningful friendship? Because I’m sure there’s a scale of, you know, Oh yeah, they’re my friend, no, not really, they’re just, I just call them that. To the best friend, that core group, that accountability group or, or whatever it might be. How do we move our friendships from the superficial to the meaningful?

Lydia Denworth

Well, one important point is that you don’t have to move all of them. You just have to have, you have to have some really good, strong quality relationships. And what I think is most interesting about this work is for me it does two things. It actually clarified what friendship really is. Um, at least some of the essential things it has to have. And I’ll come back to that in a second. And secondly, it actually blurred the lines then though between friends and other kinds of relationships like blood relatives and romantic partners. Because in fact, what matters most for your health is the quality of the bonds that you have with the people closest to you. And it doesn’t actually matter whether that’s your spouse or your sister or your best friend if as long as the relationship shares these quality factors. And so what those, I know you’re going to ask me now. So what are they? So here’s what they are. Um, the, the, this especially so research in both, basically research in animals and then in anthropology across cultures and then even asking like young kids, what do you like about what, what makes a good friend? The same themes come out. And um, now this is this particular thing isn’t true about friends but about uh, young kids because they just haven’t had enough time to say it. But, but basically the simplest definition of a really good friendship is that it’s long lasting. So you’ve put in some time together, it’s positive, it makes you feel good, both of you and it’s got some cooperation to it, some reciprocity and back and forth. And if you think about those, those three things now, human friendship can have a lot more than that. It has trust and loyalty and, and other things, but, but it’s got to have those essentials and those, those are true in animal friendships. And in the book, those baboons I mentioned earlier, their relationships that are best for them are long lasting and positive and cooperative. But in these other cultures around the world and that anthropologists studied, same thing happened. Friendships were um, they were positive. They made you feel good. They involved a willingness to help, especially in times of crisis, which is basically that cooperative reciprocal element. And interestingly in anthropology, they found that gift giving came into it a lot. Um, which at first when I heard that I thought, huh, well are we really that shallow that we need stuff from our friends? But what I came to realize is that the gift giving is really about not the value of the gift, but the value of the relationship that it symbolizes. And it’s about sort of acknowledging your friend and appreciating them, showing that you appreciate them. And so I do think there’s a lesson to be taken from that about, it doesn’t have to be a gift. It has to be that effort of saying, you matter to me and I value our relationship, which is something that maybe we don’t do enough with our friends.

Dr. Cooper

Thanks for laying those three out because the third one, it just resonates so much. When I think about my closest friends, it’s not the people that I spend the most time with necessarily or have known the longest. It’s the people who we have a real conversation. There’s that give and take. I’m asking him how he’s doing. He’s asking me how I’m doing. Whereas I have other friends that I’ve known, you know, 10 times as long, but they just talk the whole time and they never, and I’m interested in them. I love hearing what they’re up to. But you hang up the phone, you go, huh? I don’t, I don’t think they asked a single thing. So it’s interesting that that was one of the key three areas because again, when I think of my closest friends, that’s the one that stands out. It’s those people that we have that reciprocal back and forth and we’re engaged. We care. And maybe that’s the gift, you made me think of the love languages. You know, some people it’s literally a gift matters. Other people, it’s the communication or the proximity time or those types of things. That is really interesting.

Lydia Denworth

Well, you’re so right. So listening is essential. Showing up and listening are essential parts of being a good friend. Um, you do have to put in time at least initially. Um, even if you like someone right from the minute you meet, it takes time to develop the kind of rich relationship that we’re talking about here. Um, but I love that you are, that you noticed that difference in your friends and that in, in people and it, it has to do well, actually, I would just like to point out since you’re, since you’re, um, you referred to this, is that that idea of catching up with someone is really a friendship making and strengthening activity. And the reason is because if you ask that question of your friend, like, Hey, catch, tell me what’s up with your life. Catch me up on everything. And then, and then he asks it of you, um, you’re showing that you care, right? And that you, you are taking time to hear that information. And there’s so many people in our lives for whom we don’t do that. And we don’t have to do it for everyone. But so, you know, everybody thinks, especially women like to think that friendship is all about self disclosure and you know, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. And it is, and that is really good for friendship and it is a really, and even men who, who do it say that they feel closer after. Um, but there are other ways of communicating that build and strengthen friendships and catching up is one of them. So I just wanted to mention that since you referred to that, the other thing I want to say about the reciprocity of the give and take is that it’s not just in the talking, but in doing things for each other and being there when somebody needs you. And sometimes the most interesting, one of the things that humans have that’s lovely is that, you know, you, when you get close enough to someone that you give up the kind of tit for tat accounting, that some people might say, well, but wait a minute, it shouldn’t, it shouldn’t be as, it shouldn’t be down to like, well, you did this for me, so now, I’ll do that for you. Um, but there is an element of that. And then what happens is that with our best relationships, that sort of, you don’t keep score anymore, but over time it has to even out a bit. Right? And so maybe somebody is in crisis for a while and you’ve got to show up for him all the time and you know, it might two years, but then there will be something that happens to you and you really need your friends. And if you know those people are there and then they show up, then like that’s what matters. Right? And so I’m not saying that there has to be this, um, this tit for tat, but what does happen is that if there never is that reciprocity or the, like those friends who just talk about themselves the whole time or even when you’re talking, you know, they’re not really listening, they’re just trying to come up with that clever thing that they’re going to say about the, we call it the, how it pertains to me. Like those relationships don’t always last. And, uh, and you know, I’m not sure that they should.

Dr. Cooper

Right, that’s very good. Back to the health and wellness piece, you, you mentioned the Harvard study that your health and happiness at 80 was not based on your wealth. It wasn’t based on your professional success, it was your relations at age, relationships at age 50. Can you fill us in on some of the gaps of that?

Lydia Denworth

It was yours, the satisfaction you had in your relationships at 50 was the best predictor of how healthy and happy you would be at 80. Um, it’s so interesting. And you know that Harvard study, so it’s a pretty famous study. Maybe your listeners are familiar with it, right. More than 700 men were followed for the duration of their lives beginning in college. So, um, and so a chunk of them were Harvard students, but there actually was also a chunk who were teenagers in a poor neighborhood in Boston who were not Harvard students. And so they followed all of them. It was more than 700 people. They followed for as long as they lived and now they’re actually studying their second generations and stuff. Um, but so it gave us this long, a longitudinal study in humans that is rare, um, that, you know, lasted for 60 years, right. Um, and so because several of these men went, lived from their twenties all the way into their nineties even. And so they were keeping track. I think basically what they did was that the men filled out questionnaires every two years in their lives and then they had medical exams every five years. And so all of that data right goes into telling us like, it allows you to compare an awful lot of things. Now, I will say it’s interesting. They also looked at the warmth of your childhood, um, and your relationship with your mother, the men’s relationships with their mothers. And that did have, that was important as a predictor as well. But even that sort of leads in part to your ability to form strong relationships in midlife. Um, and what I think is so interesting is that it’s relationships, plural, your satisfaction with relationships with an S on the end, right? Not just whether you’re married for instance, and have a happy marriage, although that was very important. It’s, it’s, you know, the people around you, how integrated you are socially, how many warm relationships you have. And I mean, it really is just, it tells us that we’ve been getting it a bit upside down. I think, you know, we, when you ask a 20 something person, what do they aspire to in life, they’re going to talk about professional success and wealth. And very few people say, you know, I really want to make sure I have very strong relationships. Um, and even though it’s not that anybody, I think most of us don’t imagine that we don’t want to have, it’s just that we’re aren’t as explicit about that as a goal.

Dr. Cooper

And we just assume it’s going to happen. Friendships oh yeah.

Lydia Denworth

Yeah. And, and I noticed this, I mean, one of the things that’s come out of this book too is that because I’ve talked about how, um, intense relationships or friendships are for kids when they’re in like school age, in middle school and adolescents and parents need to sort of really understand that it is developmentally appropriate for kids to do that. But apropos of what we’re talking about, it struck me that as parents often we don’t always deliver a message about the importance of learning to be a good friend and maintain good friendships. We’re always talking about achievement. And at least in my world, we are, you know, I’m not saying that doesn’t matter. You know, I do believe that kids should push themselves in school. They should, you know, and that there’s a lot to be gained by, um, professional success and academic success, but at least as important and more important according to this Harvard study of these these men is, is the ability to have good friends and strong relationships. And so we should be prioritizing that all through life. And in, and in companies. If you’re, if you happen to be a boss, it speaks to the importance of the community that people work in too. I’m not saying everybody has to be buddy buddy with everyone they work with. Um, you know, that’s not realistic or even desirable. But it is important that there’s a positive environment and that people do have some friends at work. I mean that the research is really compelling. That there’s less turnover, more positive reviews, more productivity, more efficiency. You know, people are just happier to come to work. Um, if they’ve got people that they like there and that they feel, you know, that they get along with. So at all points in our lives that it’s, it’s an important thing. And that and that statistic about where you are at 50 on relationships predicting 80 just sort of sums it up so perfectly to me and it’s really like eye opening. We’re just not that good at that long cost accounting or whatever the phrase is. I’m, that’s probably not it. You know, thinking ahead and saying, Oh, this is really going to matter.

Dr. Cooper

Well that’s our job today, right? That’s what we’re going to get after.

Lydia Denworth

That’s right. Exactly. I hope so.

Dr. Cooper

Another interesting one you, you talked about Steve Cole’s work on gene expression. We had Dr. Kenneth Pelletier talk about epigenetics on an episode last year and it was, it was one of the first times I’d really dug into this. It’s fascinating information, but you talked about how the immune system was improved, less inflammation, more protection against viruses in those people who participate in this gen X program, which really was an opportunity to enhance their, their relationships to build on those. Tell us about that. I think that’s really fascinating and obviously probably feeds into some of the other things we’ve been talking about in terms of benefits.

Lydia Denworth

Oh, absolutely. It does. And to explain that, I need to just back up a little bit and explain where this started, is that when researchers started really looking at loneliness as a potentially public health issue in the nineties and two thousands, it happened just at the time that we began to be able to, um, to sequence the human genome. And that’s what Steve Cole at UCLA does. In fact, he doesn’t just do that. He, so just as a, the most basic understanding is that, you know, your genes are like the blueprint for who you’ll be in life, but everything depends on whether they are expressed or not, whether they’re turned on or off. Right? And so, and genes turn in, you know, RNA takes the information in the DNA and then translates it essentially into proteins. And um, and the proteins often affect whether you’re going to get sick or not. Um, and so what Steve Cole does is look at that, the translation process. It’s called transcription right. So he, it’s, so you’re not just sequencing the genome, you’re looking at whether those genes are turned on and off by your life experience. So you are both your genes and your lived experience. And the two are inseparable. And so, so the thing that they found starting in the two thousands was they were looking at the lonely people that a guy named John Cassiopeia at the university of Chicago was studying. He was really a pioneer in studying loneliness and they ran just like 14 blood samples from the really lonely people. And then the much, you know, the really socially integrated people in the study that Cassiopeia had, cause he met Cole and he thought, Oh he was doing this interesting work about gene expression. So they ran just these few samples and Steve Cole thought, okay, you know, loneliness, it sounds important, but you know, it’s an, it’s an emotion. It’s not, you know, whatever he, he didn’t, he thought it was the soft stuff. Exactly. He could not believe what he saw. So when they got back the results from these really lonely people versus the non lonely people, it was crystal clear that the lonely people’s gene expression in this part of the immune system that they were looking at absolute, it made them more susceptible to inflammation and it made them more susceptible to viral diseases. The basically there’s a set of genes that kind of regulate your inflammatory responses and another set that regulate your viral responses. And they were in the lonely people. They were tuned in a way that, or they were expressed in a way that made them more susceptible. And in the less lonely people, they were more resilient.

Lydia Denworth

And, and Steve Cole, when he looked at that, he said, you know, why? Like why would your leukocytes care about this? Your leukocyte is your white blood cells. Right? Um, and he realized that loneliness really mattered. And then what he went on to do was, was to see that same pattern in other people’s, um, blood samples. But these people were people like suffering severe poverty or trauma and things like child soldiers in Africa. And that didn’t discount the importance of the loneliness finding. What it said is loneliness is right up there with the worst things that can happen to people in terms of how your body responds. Now the generation exchange people that are featured at the end of my book, and it’s like the payoff for why you’ve stuck with this all the way. But once Cole and Cassiopeia, everybody identified then the immune response in lonely people. Then they started looking at more closely at how friendships and, and not being lonely is protective. Right. And so what they have found is that in people who are engaged as, and these people at the end of the book or, um, it was a group of, it’s mostly African American women in South Los Angeles and they volunteer at schools. And the woman who organized the program is a social epidemiologist from UCLA. So she was colleagues with Steve Cole and her idea, she’s worked on this issue of social relationships and health her whole life and always had a special interest in the later part of life. So she created this program extensively as like a, you know, education, not for profit. Let’s get in, we all care about the kids, let’s help the kids. And oh you older adults who volunteer, you’ll get some health benefits. But what she was really doing, and she admits to it privately, is setting up the opportunity to make friends, um, for these older adults who had retired and maybe they’d lost a spouse and you know, they were mostly sitting at home and, and it works like gangbusters and the kids are benefiting the older adults, their health is benefiting in all kinds of ways in there. They are making really strong relationships and friendships with each other, with the teachers, with even with the kids, but their immune systems to get to the punchline. Their immune systems are improving that those very same sets of genes that Steve Cole found, you know, dysregulated in the, or more susceptible to disease in really lonely people. They’re measuring them over the course of their people’s participation in this project and finding that they are improving in terms of their resilience to disease. Um, now I should just say it’s a small sample there and they have compared it to, you know, so there’s, I say that in the book. So there are still a lot of science to be done there, but oh, it’s so tantalizing.

Dr. Cooper

Yeah. Yeah, it is fascinating. All right, let’s shift gears just slightly. You talk about how relationships protect our bodies. How about our brains? Can you tell us a little bit more about that element briefly?

Lydia Denworth

They are critical for cognitive health. People who just like we talked about all these other things, you know, like your stress responses and your and your heart and your immune system. It’s also protective for dementia, Alzheimer’s, you know, um, all kinds of things. So basic fact is that people who are more socially integrated are much less likely to suffer from dementia later in life. And there’s still, again, there’s still a lot we don’t know about exactly why that is. Um, you know, what is the, what is the pathway that’s happening in the brain to do it. But there are multiple studies now that find that. And so, so that is why connecting is such a critical piece of the health puzzle. And the other thing is it’s important not to wait until, um, let’s say, you know, you have a busy career and you’re raising kids or you know, one or the other or both. And so you say, you know, I have time for friends later. That is not smart. It’s, uh, maybe you have less time for friends now, but it is really important to not sort of ditch them entirely and to work those muscles and build that bench of relationships all through your life. Um, on the other hand, it is also possible to make new friends at any point. Um, and there are a lot of really lovely stories about older adults making friends, either, you know, maybe when they move into a retirement community or when they do, when they volunteer at a program like generation exchange that I was just describing. Um, and what is clear is that older people, when they’re retiring, the ones who work to replace their workmates with new playmates, um, do the best, um, cognitive health and, and all other physical health. So that sort of active involvement in, you know, looking to forge relationships is protective.

Dr. Cooper

So good. All right. What about the person that’s listening to this and they’re thinking, I don’t think I have any close friendships at this stage of my life. What would you suggest to, if you were, if you’re guiding them, if you’re sitting down over coffee and they came to you and said, Lydia, I just, I don’t, I don’t have that. What, what, what would you suggest? Well, of course there are, uh, there can be a variety of reasons for that. Um, and I can’t speak to all of them because sometimes people need, you know, therapy or, or something. So my little caveat, um, but I will say this. So one important thing is, is that it is true that there are some people who are more introverted and enjoy being alone. So we have the word solitude, right? To describe kind of the pleasures of being alone versus loneliness that is the pain of it. Um, so it is entirely possible to be someone who really enjoys time alone and to be introverted and be someone who doesn’t really like big parties or who mostly wants to interact with just one person at a time, say, um, and that’s okay. But the real step change in health goes from zero to one in terms of friends. So from no one to one is, you know, one will get you a world of good. So that’s important to understand. Um, and I actually, I don’t think I said earlier when we were talking about how important quality is, the average person just has four people in their most inner circle. Right? Um, and so we’re not talking about 20 here. Right? Um, and, and I am not saying that everybody has to go out and be the life of the party at all. So, you know, like I say, one, one good friend with whom you can spend time is important. And if you’re introverted, a lot of introverts still say they, they do have one good friend or two good friends. And so that’s good. Um, and that’s enough. Uh, but if you really don’t feel you have any, and I have been meeting some of these people when I’ve been out talking about the book and, and often it’s because they’ve just moved, they’ve just retired. They have young kids and they, you know, they there’s some kind of restriction in their, I dunno, ability to get out in the world. I mean, I just am thinking of a young man, I met at a talk I just gave who, he came to the talk by himself because his wife was home with the little kids and they, they’re trading off, but they’ve just moved to this new place. They have little kids, they know no one. He’s like, how do I make friends? And, uh, you know, I, um, I was really sympathetic. I also think in that case, like when you have, for instance, very young kids, you’re sort of in the fog of battle. But when your kids get to school, you start to meet other parents. But it is important, especially if you live in a kind of place where like drop off at school is in a car on the driveway of the school that you find that you make yourself go to the events where you can meet other parents. Same thing if you’re not a parent, but you moved to a new city for work. You have to put yourself out there somewhat and make yourself vulnerable, which I know is hard to do. And I say this as someone who, I mean as a science writer, when I was pivoting into this new field, I would go to these meetings where there would be other science writers and I knew no one. And I knew that it was going to be important both just for fun and for my career to actually try to meet some of these people. But it meant going to parties and having to walk up to people and introduce myself. And it’s very painful thing to do. But it does often result in those relationships. But you’ve gotta sort of, you’ve got to put yourself in the places where you have more opportunity to do that. Um, and also shared interest is just hugely important. So let’s say you’ve just moved to a new city instead of sort of just going to, um, a social event where you’re thrown in a room and it’s like, you know, let’s meet people. I do think that like volunteering or, um, going to an organization that like, if you love theater, go find people who love theater. Like go, you know what I mean? Join purpose, more purposeful, more intentional about who you are looking to meet, because that’s really a place where good friendships are often developed is over shared interests and shared passion.

Dr. Cooper

Hmm. Excellent. Excellent. All right, let’s talk just two more. Let’s talk briefly about social media. I’m sure there’s both pluses and minuses. I noticed just as I knew this conversation was taking place today, Saturday night I was sitting and watching the slam dunk contest with my son in law and my son is in a totally different city and we’re texting back and forth about, Oh my gosh, did you see that? Wow, that was amazing. Oh wow. He’s totally gonna win. And it was just this weirdly fun process of communicating and it was just a text. It wasn’t a big deal, you know, but, but it just felt like it created a connection that would not have existed five years ago. And that happens with our daughters as well. Suzanna, my wife and I and our kids are in four different places. So there, there seems to be some positive, but there obviously is also some negative, the distractions, the, you know, being peeled out, there’s gotta be something better than this conversation. So I’m going to pull my phone out. Can you just talk us through the pluses and minuses of social media these days and when it comes to friendship?

Lydia Denworth

Yes. When, so you’re exactly right. You’ve, you’ve given a really good example in my family, my husband and I and our three sons have a, have a running group text that really does allow us to sort of just stay connected in a way that, two of them are off in college now and it’s fun. It’s a lot of jokes and you know, memes and gifs and things and well, they’re better at the memes. I can do them a little little bit, but anyway, it’s, but it does sort of, it’s this way of checking in. That’s very different from when I was in college. So two out of my three are in college. When I was in college, you know, I called my parents once on Sunday nights and I feel much more connected to my kids while they’re, while they’re away because of this. The bottom line is this, if you use social media in the way you’ve just described as one extra channel with which to connect to people with whom you have a strong relationship or a good relationship offline, then it strengthens the bond. It’s just extra piece of building and maintaining that relationship. And that is, and it really does make it stronger. And so, um, that’s important to know and to understand. Uh, it’s also true that people who have bigger networks online tend to have bigger networks offline. Um, and so often there are online and offline lives mirror each other. And the truth is that social media, the latest research and as much more rigorous and, and statistically, um, more statistically rigorous and more nuanced in the kinds of questions it’s asking about social media and how it affects wellbeing in general. And it’s finding that it’s not actually as terrible as everybody has led us to believe. Um, and within that to stay on friendship, um, now I hope people will read the book to get all of why that’s true. Um, because I’ve got all the evidence there.

Lydia Denworth

But um, friendship and relationships turn out of all the things that social media affects, they do best. Like the, you know, the effect it both for negative stuff and for positive stuff. The effects are generally small or are not generally small, are small across the board, but relationships has the biggest effect and it’s a positive one. And for instance, older adults, it’s really slam dunk for them. You were talking about the, the, uh, the all star game is, um, it’s really positive for older adults who may be, are further from family or are more restricted in getting out by, by health issues. Um, they’re much more connected now. It is also really important to put down your phone when you were with someone in person. And eye contact really matters that time together in person matters. Eye contact actually primes the social and communication parts of the brain in an interesting way that that other forms of contact do not. And so, so if you’re distracted and you’re not focused on the person in front of you, which of course many of us are guilty of these days, that is a problem. And, and there’s a lot of evidence of that. So, um, so it’s kind of that the, and, and the other thing I’ll say is this, is that I think that just like I said, you don’t have to be really, really close friends with everyone equally. That’s what friendship is actually about. By definition it’s, it’s the sort of differentiation that I like this person more than that person or we just connect. There’s chemistry to friendship just as there is to romance. Um, the same is true online. Like it’s fine to have a whole bunch of Facebook friends in quotes that you aren’t really good friends with as long as you understand that that’s who they are. Right. And the truth is, when they did a study and they asked people, they said, I think the statistic was something like 40% of their Facebook friends were actual friends. So we’re smart enough to know the difference. Right. And, um, those distant Facebook friends give you something they can in a way. Like, I mean, I’ve been on a book tour, I’ve been having a great time because my high school and college friends have been coming out in force. And not only are they coming to see me, but because of Facebook, they connect to each other and then they’re having like a big dinner reunion at, at my book, after my book talk or something. And without Facebook, I guarantee that wouldn’t happen. And so I feel like I’m getting rolling friendship tour is not just friendship, the book, but friends, literal friendship tour, um, which is really fun. And social media has enabled that. There’s no question about it. And so, so on those levels, it’s great. A lot of those people I don’t see very often, um, if I’ve seen them at all in 30 years, you know, it’s, um, and, but, and so I don’t think those are my closest friends, but they are people who, you know, with whom I have a connection and with whom for, you know, it was fun to see them and it’s great that I inspired them to get together and um, and so that it is what it is. Right. It doesn’t have to be more than that. Um, but you do have to have those close relationships when we’re talking about health, you gotta have those close relationships and, and those do have to exist offline, you know, and maybe they exist online as well, but, but that’s not in a vacuum.

Dr. Cooper

Right. Yeah. Fantastic. Our last question, just wide open. Any final words of wisdom for folks either trying to help clients with their health and wellness or they’re trying to improve their own health and wellness and how friendship plays into that that we haven’t talked about?

Lydia Denworth

Well, the thing that I think is most that has been most useful for me is not to think about this as one more thing on your to do list, but rather that it should be giving you permission to go hang out with your friends. That right, that this science, this is critical and it’s the thing we want to do and that we have fun doing. And now I’m saying, you know what? Girls night is as good as a run or going to play football in the park or whatever it is. Or maybe you go for a run with your friend and you get a two for one, double dip. Um, but that’s, that it’s, it’s permission to hang out with your friends and to know that you’re not skipping out on work or your kids or whatever it is you’re doing, something that matters for you and, um, and for your health, for your friend’s health and that, that makes you better at everything else. You do better at your work, better at parenting, better at, at being a friend. All those things, you can’t go wrong.

Dr. Cooper

And that’s beautiful. Love it. Lydia, how do folks follow you? Are you on Twitter? Are you in different places?

Lydia Denworth

I am, the sort of central clearing house, I suppose of all things Lydia is my website. LydiaDenworth.com I am on twitter @LydiaDenworth. I am elsewhere as well. I’m on Facebook. I have an author page on Facebook, so um, science writer Lydia and uh, um, but if people go to my website they can find all of that and follow me on Twitter. Those are the things probably that are the most useful and I have a newsletter on the website that people can sign up for and stay connected with all the work and a little bit of an inside view of what it is to be a science journalist and what I’m doing and reading and listening to, which podcasts like yours I’m discovering. Um, so that’s how they can find me.

Dr. Cooper

Perfect. Perfect. Well thank you again so much. This is fantastic. Great way to bring in that connect piece to the other three that frankly tend to get too much attention in that case.

Lydia Denworth

Well, thank you for doing it. It was great.

Dr. Cooper

Perfect timing for Lydia to join us with so much going on around all of us right now. So many uncertainties. This was such a great reminder of the importance of good, solid friendships. Thanks for tuning in and an extra thanks to those who’ve left such kind reviews on Apple podcasts and other places, Spotify, et cetera. By the way, if you enjoy the podcast, you might also enjoy our new YouTube channel. We just launched it about a month and a half ago and we’ll have a link to it down below. It’s called the health wellness and performance coaching channel, and you can pull that up on YouTube, all kinds of resources to either up your game as a coach or for your own personal wellness. Hope you enjoy it. Now it’s better time and today, hopefully that involves being just a little bit better friend. This is Dr. Bradford Cooper signing off. Make it a great rest of your week and I’ll speak with you soon on the next episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness and Performance Podcast.