Category Archives: The Hard Facts

The Hard Facts: This Is Your Brain on Friends

“According to research conducted at Rush University Medical Center, frequent social activity may help to prevent or delay cognitive decline in old age. … On average, those who had the highest levels of social activity (the 90th percentile) experienced only one quarter of the rate of cognitive decline experienced by the least socially active individuals.” (“Higher Levels of Social Activity Decrease the Risk of Cognitive Decline,” Science Daily 4/26/2011)

You may be tired by now of hearing all the health benefits of having a full social circle. Every time new research to that effect is published, you see it here. It’s getting old, you might be thinking. Tell us something we don’t know.

That said, I’ll probably never stop touting this research. Because every time new research comes to light, I remember that for all our analysis and over-analysis about friendships—who is putting in the effort? Is it too late to attempt friendship? Why is she giving me ‘tude?—the truth is that we just need to surround ourselves with people. We have to calm down with the relationship neuroses (believe me, I’ve been plagued with all kinds of friendship anxieties) and just do it. It’s like exercise. You may not like it, but you’ve got to do it. (And you’ll probably like it more than the treadmill. For real.)

For me, getting out there meant launching a full-fledged search. I’m a pretty all-or-nothing gal. For you it might be less intense.  It doesn’t need to be a big thing. You don’t even need to veer out of your comfort zone. If you find picking up ladies at the grocery store uncomfortable (yes, I did that), sign up for a class. If you’d rather rip your arm off than perform with an improv group (yup, did that too), start a book club. If online friending makes you nervous (check), try simply accepting all the invitations that come your way, no matter how not-in-the-mood you are.

I know this is easier said than done. There is all kind of awkwardness and embarrassment and reverting back to your nine-year-old self involved with making friends as an adult. But every time I read that having friends will improve my chances of surviving breast cancer, or less likely to suffer dimensia (both of which are in my family), I find it pretty unbelievable.

The “why” of all this research remains to be seen. “According to [one researcher], one possibility is that ‘social activity challenges older adults to participate in complex interpersonal exchanges, which could promote or main efficient neural networks in a case of ‘use it or lose it.’”

For us non-scientists, the why is less important than the facts: This cognitive decline info is just the latest in a long line of health benefits that come from making friends.

So go out there, make friends, share some girl talk and sing into a wine bottle at an impromptu dance party once in a while. It’s good for you.

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The Hard Facts: Everyone Is Hanging Out Without You

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“When we scroll through pictures and status updates, the worry that tugs at the corners of our minds is set off by the fear of regret, according to Dan Ariely, author of ‘Predictably Irrational’ and a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He says we become afraid that we’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend our time.” (“Feel Like a Wallflower? Maybe It’s Your Facebook Wall” New York Times, 4/9/2011)

I mentioned last week how excited I am for the release of Mindy Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). The title alone tells me hers will be my kinda stories.

The titular concern is a universal one—no one wants to feel left out—but I didn’t know until yesterday that there is an actual scientific term for this sentiment: FOMO. Fear of Missing Out. According to this article’s author, FOMO “refers to the blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram.”

The author says she was struck with FOMO on a quiet Friday night when, while she was curled up on the couch, her phone went bonkers with alerts about her friends’ whereabouts. Three ladies were at a nearby music venue, without her. Other pals posted pics from a trendy restaurant. Suddenly her cozy night in didn’t seem so luxurious.

I can relate. I catch a bad case of FOMO whenever I see Facebook pictures of my New York BFFs out on the town together. I feel it even if the pics are simply of them lounging at someone’s apartment. That’s when it hits me: Everyone is hanging out without me.

And it’s not just feelings of being left out. Looking at someone’s photos or reading their Tweets often makes me feel like my life is too plain. I’m not spending my evenings at movie premieres like my friend Adam apparently is. Or eating sushi in Japan like Lauren seems to be. Or having babies like, um, EVERYONE.

These are the moments when I remind myself that Facebook photos and other social media updates are self-selecting. No one is going to post pictures of their lazy Friday evening on the couch (though even that might be enough to inspire FOMO in a super-busy overscheduled type). We document the events that are unusual and exciting, the minutia of every day doesn’t warrant such online real estate.

I’m just as guilty of this as the next girl: I’ve only posted photos to Facebook once, and it was pics of my Croatian vacation. Hardly an everyday occurrence.

FOMO is only going to strike more and strike harder as social media continues to grow. “Streaming social media have an immediacy that is very different from, say, a conversation over lunch recounting the events of the previous weekend. When you see that your friends are sharing a bottle of wine without you — and at that very moment — ‘you can imagine how things could be different,’ Professor Ariely said.”

The solution? Unplug. Step away from the computer or, as the author did, turn your phone screen-side down.

No mo’ FOMO. (Yeah, I said it.)

Have you been struck with FOMO after perusing one too many Facebook pictures or status updates? What’s your cure?

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The Hard Facts: The Benefits of Alone Time

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them.” (“The Power of Lonely,” The Boston Globe 3/6/2011)

For someone who writes a daily blog about making friends, I actually quite enjoy—and am completely comfortable with—alone time. I learned to appreciate time by myself when I was 20 years old, doing an internship in San Francisco for a semester.

Forget having a local BFF. In San Fran I didn’t even have a local F.

These were the three months in which I fell in love with yoga, and the classes kept many of my weeknights busy. On weekends I would pick up my book-of-the-moment and make my way to the local make-your-own-salad place, settle in, eat alone, read, and people watch.

It was a definite time of growth for me, and the period during which I learned the difference between being lonely and being alone. As professor John Cacioppo says in this article, “People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people. You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes.”

According to the studies cited in this article, “people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone.” Solitude can also make people “more capable of empathy towards others,” and help “teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school.” Researchers also found that people feel good about being alone more often than they feel bad about it, it’s just that most of the solitude spotlight is focused on loneliness.

These days, when I have a few hours to myself, I most definitely feel good about  it. But back in the days before this friend search, when I felt at a serious loss for local close friends to call for a playdate? I felt crummy. As is mentioned in this article, it’s a lot easier to handle being alone when it is a choice, rather than a state you’re forced into for lack of companions.

Solitude can also help us think more creatively. “When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.” For me, this is the kind of critical thinking that happens in the shower, the car, or on the treadmill. (Does that happen to you? I do all my best thinking in the shower. I come up with my most interesting ideas, I remember things I wanted to add to my to-do list, but by the time I make it to my computer… Poof! They’ve vanished. So frustrating!)

The moral of this story is nothing new. It’s the buzzword of the century: Balance. Carving out some alone time for yourself—and, again, this really only applies to solitude by choice—will help you reboot and be even more BFF-ready when you find her.

Thoughts? Do you see the benefits of alone time? And the difference between being alone and being lonely? Discuss.

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The Hard Facts: Why We Stick To Our Alliances

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“[There’s] new evidence supporting the so-called ‘alliance hypothesis’ of friendship, which states that individuals’ feelings about their friends are based mostly on how those friends feel about them.” (“Research Suggests Friendship Is Built on Alliances,” Penn News, 2/3/2010)

I was initially intrigued by this article because of, duh, my love for Survivor. Turns out it has nothing to do with my favorite reality show (or its crush-worthy host), although the concept of alliances on the island isn’t totally dissimilar from this new BFF hypothesis.

At first glance, this new research doesn’t really seem like news. We like the people who like us back. So what?

But the researchers say the alliance hypothesis is in opposition to the friendship motivators most people believe in. It “contrasts with the more conventional ‘reciprocity’ theory of friendship, which holds that humans make friends mostly in order to reap the reciprocal benefits.”

I’ve often mentioned here that reciprocity is a rule of friendship. If I make plans with a new friend, she should (eventually) invite me places in return. If I give her a ride to the airport, she shouldn’t mind driving me home after dinner one night. Not exactly eye-for-an-eye, but the concept isn’t too far off.

These researchers are saying it’s not about keeping score, it’s about who likes us best. We are jealous creatures, and we want the friends we rank as “best” to put us in their top spot in return.

It sounds petty at first: We only like people because they like us? What about appreciating people for their kind hearts or sense of humor or generosity of spirit? But think about it seriously. What’s your reaction when Sally says that Jenny is her very best friend forever, and Jenny says Sally is a just-ok buddy.

It comes off as sad. Desperate even. Like poor Sally is hanging on Jenny’s every word. They’re like Gretchen Wieners and Regina George.

People want BFFs to share half-heart necklaces with. And if your BFF values you as much as you value her, shouldn’t reciprocity logically follow? You’ll want to do nice things for each other, in a relatively equal amount?

Of course, this is where Survivor does indeed tie in. You are in an alliance with someone who you hope likes you as much as you like them, and thus will want to keep you until the end. (Unbelievable side note: I actually didn’t realize that Survivor premieres tonight until half-way through writing this blog post. It’s some sort of cosmic love between me and Jeff at work here.)

If you had to pick, which “friendship hypothesis” would you say drives your relationships? The reciprocal, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” theory? Or the alliance “you like me the best so I’ll like you” principle?

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The Hard Facts: Is It Harder to Be Friends With Rich People?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Are the upper classes really indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk? Or is it that they just don’t understand their less privileged peers? According to a paper by three psychological researchers…members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions.” (“As For Empathy, The Haves Have Not” 12/30/2010)

Wealth and status have always been touchy subjects in friendship. It’s an uncomfortable moment when your BFF wants to order a seven course-meal at the fanciest restaurant in town and you have to say you can’t afford it.

I wrote about this situation last summer and commenters got riled up. Money—especially when it’s tight—is a sore spot. One reader said she recently lost a friend because of a split-the-bill situation gone wrong.

According to this new research, people with money to spare aren’t necessarily being selfish or inconsiderate when they act clueless about a friend’s financial circumstances. They just don’t have as strong a capacity for empathy.

“Here’s why: Earlier studies have suggested that those in the lower classes, unable to simply hire others, rely more on neighbors or relatives for things like a ride to work or child care. As a result, the authors propose, they have to develop more effective social skills — ones that will engender good will.”

If you’ve never had to ask for similar help, the authors’ logic goes, then you’ve never had to hone your people skills.

It’s an interesting argument, and it makes sense on the surface. But I have plenty of friends who grew up incredibly privileged, and many of those friends now use their advantages to help others. They may not be able to walk in the shoes of the “have-nots,” but they are certainly not “indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk” and I think they do understand their less privileged peers.

I don’t do the research, I just report it, but here’s what I think (for whatever it’s worth): Empathy can be taught. If you don’t have empathy, if you can’t bring yourself to understand where another person is coming from, it might be because it was never modeled for you. Not just because you have money.

Perhaps, if one is raised in a home of privilege, she is less likely  to get empathy exposure. And thus has less of it as an adult. Maybe that’s where the research comes from.

I don’t know. It’s just a theory.

What do you think? Have you found that people in the upper-class have a harder time relating to others? Are cross-class relationships impossible to maintain?

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The Hard Facts: Why Women Are Scared of Other Women

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Roughly 60 percent of respondents [to a survey of 3,020 women ages 15 to 86] say they still find themselves feeling uncomfortable, anxious, wary, awkward, cautious, intimidated, or even distrustful of other females as a result of past experiences.” (The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships by Kelly Valen)

I imagine that every woman has been subjected to a mean girl at least once in her life. Even if you were the mean girl, chances are your minions turned on you at some point, if only for a moment. Think Regina George and the weight-gain bars.

Just yesterday I told Matt about the night I wasn’t invited to a big slumber party in eighth grade (a party thrown and attended by my close friends) because I didn’t drink. I didn’t care if others drank, it’s not like I was trying to preach sobriety (though maybe at 14 I should have), I just didn’t want to do it myself. I was, I guess, the goody-two-shoes buzzkill.

It’s now fourteen years later and I bet the party-throwers don’t even remember this incident. But I certainly do.

With all that said, looking back on my lifetime of interactions with women, the majority have been positive. Yes, there were girls who were mean in eighth grade, and later in high school and college and the office, but overall I’ve been lucky.

I haven’t read all of Twisted Sisterhood yet, but it seems that author Kelly Valen makes clear that plenty of women have positive experiences with other women. As a lead-in to the research quoted above, Valen writes: “I don’t want to overstate anything; most of our interactions are undoubtedly pleasant, well intended, even sweet. At least on the surface.”

But if 60 percent of women are feeling suspicious and nervous around other women, that surface picture isn’t all that reliable.

When I started this search I thought the takeaway would be that people are closed off to the advances of new friends. That when people learned I was actively trying to make new friends, they’d laugh in my face. But the opposite has been true. It’s a rare occasion when a would-be friend gives me the stink eye. The women I’ve met, even if our girl-date has been a total bust, have certainly seemed open to the idea of new people and new friendships.

My past experiences have not taught me to be uncomfortable, intimidated or distrustful. Instead I’ve learned to be confident, chatty, and encouraging. Which is why I find Valen’s research to be such a bummer.

Are you one of the nervous, awkward and wary 60 percent (and if so how do you deal with that)? Has your personal history tainted female friendships forever? Or does Valen’s research surprise you?

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The Hard Facts: Walking Can Help You Make Friends

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“People who live in walkable communities are more civically involved and have greater levels of trust than those who live in less walkable neighborhoods. And this increase in so-called ‘social capital’ is associated with higher quality of life.” (“Walk Places, Meet People, and Build Social Capital” Science Daily, 12/7/2010)

I started thinking about the difficulty of modern-day friending as soon as I moved to Chicago. I worked from home and had a limited number of local contacts to help me build a social network. And the Midwest is friendly, sure, but I could easily be anonymous in this big city. Unless I actually walked up to a random stranger at yoga class, I had no idea where to start.

I figured a small town would be easier. Everyone would know everyone and neighbors would stop by with welcome-to-the-neighborhood bunt cakes.

Until my mom told me that the creepiest thing about moving to a small town was how empty the streets were. “There was no one else walking down the sidewalk,” she said. “It occurred to me that I could be abducted right there and no one would even notice.”

Well, that wouldn’t be good.

New research supports my mother’s take on the City Mouse vs. Country Mouse debate. People who live in walkable areas are more involved in their communities and thus more social.

The issue, from what I can surmise, is twofold. 1) If we must drive every time we want to see other humans, we’re not gonna. We’ll just look at people on our TV. We’re a lazy bunch.

2) If you’re driving everywhere, you’re automatically interacting with fewer people. You’re not going to meet someone while you’re crossing the street like my friend Jenna did. Or when he knocks you down and causes the contents of your purse to go flying. Wasn’t that the beginning of Carrie and Big?

Now that I think about it, the walkability of my neighborhood has indeed provided me with a few friends. There’s the salesgirl on my corner, whose store I frequent whenever I need a quick get-me-out-of-the-house walk around the block. Then there’s the girl (not yet a friend, but maybe one day! I’m working on it…) I met through my cleanse, which I only signed up for because it was at new yoga studio a quick walk from my house. And I have a friend who I met through my online essay, but the fact that she lives two blocks away means we have started to hang out for Friends marathons on lazy Sundays.

I guess walkability isn’t actually limited to cities, and non-walkability isn’t strictly small towns or suburbs. L.A. is the least walkable place on earth, isn’t it? Is it the hardest city for friending?

Have you found that being able to get somewhere on foot makes for an easier time of making friends?

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