Keeping Hearts Full: Why Friendships Matter

Keeping Hearts Full: Why Friendships Matter

Thanks so much for your responses to my last column, Keeping Empty Hearts Full. That heart-shaped bouquet of multi-colored balloons resonated with many of you. So, this week I’m going to take a closer look at one balloon that helps keep my heart full, the spirit-lifting gift of friendship.

This quote caught my eye:

“Of all the things that wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.” Epicurus

“Of all the things that wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.” Epicurus

Friendships are important, for sure.

But why?

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by Barbara Bradley Hagerty on her book, Life Reimagined. Her talk, like her book, was chock full of both stories and scientific findings from two years of research and more than four hundred interviews. The insights she shared about living well while struggling with life’s inevitable challenges have stayed with me, especially her findings on the power of friendship.

The more friends you have, the healthier, happier, and more mentally acute you will be, now and in your later years, I learned. In fact, Hagerty says, “We are wired for friends.”

And she had the brain scans to prove it.

As a participant in University of Virginia Professor Jim Coan’s “hand-holding study,” Hagerty found herself in an MRI machine with one ankle strapped with shock-producing electrodes while other sensors recorded her brain’s response. Once settled inside the machine, an “O” or “X” was flashed before her eyes. She was told no shock would be delivered with the “O.” However, when the “X” flashed, there was a one in five chance she’d be shocked.

Her responses were tested when she was alone, with a stranger holding her hand, and then with a good friend holding her hand.

When alone or holding a stranger’s hand, the regions of the brain that process danger “lit up like a Christmas tree” when the “X” flashed. But when holding a friend’s hand, her brain grew quiet.

“What we think happens,” Professor Coan reported, “is having a friend with you alters the perception of that threat.” Our brain says that even if something dangerous happens, we have help from a trusted source.

Help from a trusted source.

Oh, how those words resonated with me! My 17-day hospital adventure flashed back hard, warping time (has it really been seven months?) but not the feelings. I remember clearly that scary uncertainty, but now with a fresh awareness of what helped me get through it:


Marooned in a hospital bed, bare-bottomed with no access to help other than a call button, I didn’t realize at the time the value of my friends’ visits. Although I was sick, sometimes too sick to even speak, the knowledge that my friends were aware and available gave me confidence that, no matter what, I would get through this rough patch and be okay.

They were there for me.

Even though the twelve-hour shifts of doctors and nurses came and went and I received good care, (for the most part), I knew I was someone’s job. They could give good care, but they couldn’t care about me because they didn’t know me or my life.

Like my friends did.

I needed friends, trusted friends, to add a context to the circumstance. Their steadfast presence altered “the perception of the threat,” as the study suggested. Their thoughtful gestures and encouragement quieted the uncertainty while fueling my hope and my recovery.

In her lecture, Hagerty cited additional studies that indicated those with a network of friends live longer, recover faster from serious illnesses, and even preserve their memories better than those with few or no friends.

Makes sense to me.

Friendships do matter, I’ve learned and experienced. So I plan to keep that balloon bright, shiny, and well-inflated.

More importantly, I’ll never forget the power of holding someone’s hand.

How about you? Have you experienced the power of friendships in the midst of a rough patch? Tell me about it. I’d love to know.

And on we go…

My best – always,

Becky  (Nana B)

P.S. Thanks so much for your birthday wishes yesterday and for your support of my Pathfinders for Autism Birthday Fundraiser. It was a great day to celebrate FRIENDSHIP. Thanks for holding my hand, especially during these last seven months. I’m deeply grateful.

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