Why friendship is more important than money or genes. We talk to two women who’ve been best friends for 40 years
An 80-year-long Harvard study shows that close relationships have more of an effect on our health than money, fame or genetics. Juliet Feng, 75, and Ivy Chow, 77, are living proof of the power of friendship over longevity
Juliet Feng, 75, and Ivy Chow, 77, met each other 40 years ago at work. The now-retired nurses say that they just “clicked”; over the next several years their bond grew stronger and they became the best of friends, spending much of their time together and supporting each other through crises.
Fifteen years ago, for example, Feng was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her operation and while she was undergoing chemotherapy, Chow nursed her back to health. “Ivy kept me company the whole time,” she shares. “Thanks to her compassion and care, the recovery process was a lot more bearable.”
And when Chow’s husband passed away in 2001, she says that Feng, whom she describes as a sister, was there for her.
Both women are so close they say they might as well be family. The pair don’t just live near each other; they also celebrate all the big holidays, such as Christmas, Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, with each other and their respective families, eat most of their meals together; go shopping together, and discuss issues openly, without holding back.
Says Chow: “Even though I don’t have close relatives in Hong Kong – my daughters and siblings all live overseas – I never feel lonely because I know that I’m a part of Juliet’s family. They care for me like I’m one of their own.”
Their close and long-term friendship may be one of the reasons why Feng and Chow are content in their golden years. The pair may have enjoyed success in both their career and family life, but it’s the interaction they share with each other, and the support and nurturing they receive from each other, that might be why they enjoy such fulfilling lives today.
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And an 80-year-long study seems to back this up. One of the world’s longest examinations of adult life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development found that our relationships, and how happy we are in our relationships, have a powerful influence on our health. Surprisingly, it was close relationships, more than money or fame, that kept the subjects happy throughout their lives. Such ties are thought to delay mental and physical deterioration. Relationships are, in fact, found to be better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or genetics.
“What the Harvard study shows is that close relationships are important and that we all need people who support and love us, and with whom we feel connected,” says Dr Joyce Chao, a clinical psychologist at Dimensions Centre in Central.
Close relationships are essential to our social development, Chao says. When we have someone who supports us, listens to us, is empathetic towards us and gives us guidance, we experience a sense of connection, which boosts our emotional health.
There are also friends who might give us informational support – for instance, they might share their knowledge with us. There are those who give us instrumental support in the form of physical help, such as babysitting for us when we have to go out, or running errands for us if we’re sick.
“When you have a large social network, with different types of friends who support you in various ways, things get done,” Chao adds.
What and how much we know about ourselves is limited if we are isolated. Being with others helps us understand who we are and shows us different parts of ourselves. This, too, contributes to our self-development.
In addition, having close relationships helps with our physical health, as it’s been shown to reduce the risk of depression and dementia in old age. And if you are sick, Chao says that you tend to handle the illness and pain better if you have supportive relationships.
The quality of these relationships is also important. Says Chao: “It’s not about how many friends you have, it’s the quality of these relationships. Having one or two close friends whom you enjoy being with and can rely upon, is far better than knowing a lot of people and not sharing any close connection with them.”
Even if you’re middle-aged or elderly, it doesn’t mean you can’t go out there and make new friends. Establishing new connections and friendships isn’t something that stops after you leave school or when you retire; it’s a lifelong process.
If you don’t really have a network of friends, it’s not too late to build one. Go to places where you have a good chance of meeting new people, like the gym; volunteer for causes that are close to your heart; or join groups whose members share your interests. Of course, the older we get, the more resistant some of us might be towards accepting new friends into our lives, but Chao says it’s good to keep an open mind and be receptive to new people.
Remember, too, that all relationships take work to maintain, so continue to stay in touch with old friends, even if they live far away. “You don’t have to see one another all the time,” Chao explains. “But reach out to them every now and again, show them you care, and try to maintain some emotional connection with them. Good relationships don’t just happen on their own; they require effort to help them strengthen and grow.”
Feng and Chow say there’s no real secret to their long-lasting friendship. Apart from seeing or at least talking to each other every day, the women say that they trust each other with secrets, are free to be themselves with each other, and make it a point to treat each other well.
“Without this friendship, I think I’d be quite lonely,” says Feng. “Of course I have many friends, but I’m not as close to them and I can’t always speak my mind with them.”
“We appreciate and respect each other,” Chow adds. “I treat Juliet the way I want to be treated, and vice versa. Of course, as with every close friendship or relationship, there’s bound to be disagreements and differing points of view, but my advice is not to make a big deal of it. And all friendships are a two-way street – both people should give back what they get; there should be reciprocity.”