The Most Important Relationship In Your Life

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
 Everyone and their mother is buckling under the obligation of delivering on the romantic promise of Valentine's Day — and those who aren't are offering up snark-tastic Liz Lemon-style diatribes about how everything on Earth is a horrible pile of Hallmark trash. We would like to offer a third topic for contemplation on this important date: Friendship! 

Yes, a Valentine is traditionally reserved for people with whom you are either presently doing sex things or, at some point, are hoping to do the sex things. Of course, the awkwardly forced romance plots shoehorned into nearly every movie make it painfully clear that romantic partnerships are considered the Most Important by society (and your mother, most likely). But, actual scientific research indicates that we might be tragically overlooking the people who bravely support us and love us without the added benefit of kisses. 

The most notable bit of research that got people thinking about the importance of non-romantic, non-family relationships was this paper from the Nation Center for Biotechnology Information, which found that among a group of almost 7,000 adults, people who were "socially isolated" were more likely to have died in a nine-year period — and this was independent of their physical health (including whether or not they smoked, drank, or were overweight) and socioeconomic status. 

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Marriage does factor into that — numerous studies have shown that married people tend to live longer than single people or widows & widowers (it's tricky, though, this could be tied to the tendency of marriage to coincide with a decrease in risky behaviors like drug use). But, aside from marital status, people who had "high" contact with friends & relatives, as well as those who belonged to a church, were less likely to have died during the period of study. 11% of the people in the study who belonged to a specific group died, versus 19% of those who did not. And, overall, the link between mortality and social ties was more marked for women than men. In 2009, a study from the National Academy of Sciences found that a lack of close friends could make things go from bad to worse — in the same way that stress and depression are linked to lower survival rates among cancer patients, "outcast rats" (crying at that term) developed 84 times the amount of tumors as rats who lived and played amongst their pals. 

And it's not just about avoiding death and disease, either. A 2001 study published by the Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, researchers found that just being with a friend can make a sad experience less awful: Participants in the study watched tearjerker movie scenes alone and in the presence of friends — and when they were with friends, they smiled more. Note to self for next viewing of Blue Valentine

The aforementioned study didn't look into any gender differences in response, but there's evidence to support that female friendship really is as wonderful as Little Women would have you believe. Suicidal thoughts among adolescent girls are significantly increased by social isolation, moreso than in boys. And while men might respond to stressful social situations with a "fight or flight" reaction, psychologist Shelley E. Taylor found in her research for her book The Tending Instinct, that women more commonly react with what's come to be known as the "tend and befriend" method. Tending refers to nurturing behaviors that benefit both oneself and others; befriending (obvious as this may sound) is more about creating a solid, sound social network. Taylor draws some corellations to  the hormone oxytocin as the cause for this response. So, instead of aggression or withdrawl, women tend to see increased friendship and togetherness as the solution to a stressful situation — solutions that, it just so happens, seem to be linked to overall health. We won't go so far as to say that this makes you and your friends all licensed medical practitioners, but hey. 

Let this all be a reminder to you today: If you are single, there are still a lot of people who deserve a special dose of your love and affection, and if you're in a relationship, take a break from your romantic kayaking trip/Jazzercise/vigorous row through the lake in Central Park (why are these all exercise themed? I don't know...) and call, email, text, or Snapchat your best buds. It might just buy you a couple more precious seconds on this Earth, which you can use to pat yourself on the back for being an awesome friend. 
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