It has been a busy few weeks for me with the onset of a new year and all the business opportunity that comes along with that.  I am fortunate to have been traveling around a bit and have had some time to catch up on my reading.  Normally, my daily reading involves lots of web browsing, perusing the online versions of The New York Times, Huffington Post, Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal.  It is all very interesting but rarely does much to fill up my soul.

Back in December, I was reading the “Women” section of Huffington Post (my favorite, by far) and I read a review of a book about women’s friendships: MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend.  I typically opt for nonfiction and this one caught my eye.  I was intrigued by the premise of a woman who had spent a year trying to find best friends after she relocated to Chicago from NYC.  As someone who has gone through my share of relocations and quests to find girlfriends who could tolerate my sarcastic wit and understand that I do not have the time to chat on the phone on a daily basis (along with my love of going to the movies and great need to find adult time away from my kids), I was curious to hear about the author’s search.  I figured, since I was going to be doing a lot of plane, train and automobile travel over the middle part of January, this would be the perfect book to download to my Kindle and be my reading companion for my journeys.

While I cannot relate to the author of the book who is a newly-married, childless 20-something who fancies herself an avid book grouper and hard-core New Yorker (well, maybe I can relate to that a bit!), what struck a chord with me was her research and commentary on the importance and power of women’s friendships.  Frankly, I was shocked at how much research exists and how much has been written about friendships between women.  While reading the book, I began to really appreciate how many amazing women (and some great men) friends I have in my life.  Friends have always been a critical component of my life.  I recall being newly married and sharing my frustration with my husband that, newly transplanted to suburban NJ, I did not have my normal posse of pals to hang out with on the weekends, catch a movie with, go out to dinner with or just chat about anything and everything with.  I felt extremely lonely and isolated – very similar to what the author in this book experienced after she relocated to Chicago to be closer to her boyfriend (whom she ultimately married).  The void of girlfriends could not be filled by my husband because he simply was not a woman.  He did not understand the secret language we share.  He did not want to go bra shopping with me or run out for a mani/pedi on Saturday afternoon.  Our relationship, as newlyweds, did not need to be stressed by my forcing him to fill every gap in my life.  I had to find friends.  Not just work friends but women in my community that could be my connection to my new home.  Of course, this became much easier after I had children as, suddenly there were limitless opportunities to bond with other women who were looking for companionship and ways to entertain their new babies.  So began my journey to find new friends and years of trying on many women for size in hopes of finding a rare few who could sustain the many life changes that occur during your 20s, 30s and early 40s.

According to the book, psychologists have long described four major types of friendships:

  1. The Acquaintance – someone you’d chat with on the street or at a local cafe, who gives you a sense of belonging;
  2. The Casual Friend – a ‘grab lunch’ pal who often serves a specific purpose, such as a tennis or running partner;
  3. The Close Buddy – an intimate, trustworthy comrade you can say anything to;
  4. The Lifer – someone who is as deep and forever as family.

According to this research, women should have 3-5 lifers, 5-12 close friends, 10-50 casuals, and 10-100 acquaintances.  Wow!  That is a lot of friends.  Now, certainly, between work pals, people I know from my kids and around town, old high school and college chums and others I have met through volunteer work, school, etc, I probably have lots more than 100 acquaintances.  However, when you start looking at the numbers of close pals and lifers, it sure does seem like a lot of friends.  Furthermore, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar who, while studying the behavior of primates in the early 90s, noticed that social groups were limited in size.  He determined that the size of our brains determines how many relationships we can sustain.  For the chimps he found that number to be about 50 and, for humans, that number jumps to 150.  So, essentially, our maximum capacity for our social network is 150 people.  If we have them filled up with acquaintances and casual pals, it kind of jams things up for the close friends and lifelong buddies.  Naturally, in order to achieve and maintain those important close connections, we need to continually do a little housecleaning with our friends.  And, as someone who lives in a small community with lots of friendship circles, you can see how fluid those relationships are.  People gossip equally about which couples have split up as they do about which girlfriends have had a falling out.

Another interesting piece of research comes from a 2010 study that found that social integration improves a person’s odds of survival by 50%.  In fact, the researchers found that having low levels of connection is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.  It is more harmful to our health than not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity.  So, essentially, having friends, particularly girlfriends, is good for your health!  I think most of us instinctively know all this to be true.  The time we spend with our girlfriends typically ranks as some of the most meaningful, powerful and enjoyable moments in our lives.  While we love our partners and our families, our girlfriends provide an outlet that cannot easily be replaced by anyone else.

Now in my mid 40s, I am grateful for all the women (and men) that I call my friends.  My relationships  definitely fall into the different categories and I am fortunate that I know who fits which bill.  I know who my lifers and close friends are and I value them dearly.  As I do my causal acquaintances and my extended social network who continually make me feel connected to the world that I live in.  Take a moment to take stock of your friends and appreciate all that they bring to your life.  And, if you are at a point where you are in search of new friends, I highly encourage you to read the book!

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