A 20-year friendship between two chimpanzees, Jayson and Nikita, at India's Lucknow Zoo was in the news recently. The zoo planned to separate them because they weren’t reproducing. Indeed, the two instead were simply the best of friends. Fortunately for Jayson and Nikita, protests by scientists and the public halted this ill-conceived plan. For me, this brought up interesting questions about how friendships might be adaptive and influence your life and success, and how different degrees of friendship can be helpful—or harmful—to our well-being.
We humans know that having strong social bonds reduces stress and lowers the risk of disease; the same is true for animals. Social network analysis, which looks at how connected individuals are with one another, is revealing that all kinds of animals have buddies and, like us, certain individuals are tremendously popular. I like to think of social-network analysis as Facebook for animals, except it’s grounded in real-world interactions.
A recent study of vervet monkeys, for example, revealed that those with more social ties, or more "friends," were able to stay warmer on chilly nights, presumably because they could huddle together with more companions. And it’s not just primates. Social-network analysis of wild horses revealed that females with more friends experienced less harassment from males, a higher birth rate, and greater survival compared with females that had fewer pals. This means that friendship can have immediate benefits which, over time, may increase your survival and success.
Making friends is always tricky and can depend largely on your motivations. Sometimes you need strategic friends because, as we know all too well, it’s not what you know, but whom you know that matters. This is also true in baboon communities, where similarity in age and social status play roles in who becomes your "friend." That’s because, if a friend is going to have your back in a conflict, it’s most likely to be a high-ranking friend. If you're a hyena trying to join a new social group, you have to be very careful whom you choose as a friend. If you don’t have any friends yet and are looking to make one, the proper etiquette is to always take the side of the highest-ranking hyena in any conflict, even if they are losing at that very moment.
Having friends that aren’t sincere relationships can go beyond simply strategic alliances, which usually work for both parties, and into the realm of "frenemies." This type of relationship does not reflect genuine affection, but rather is a way of keeping an eye on the competition or using someone to get ahead for your own purposes (often to their detriment). We see frenemies in chimpanzee groups. Because status is so important in chimpanzee society, some individuals align themselves with whoever is most dominant, but unlike with hyenas where the hierarchy is stable, things are often in flux with chimpanzee and some individuals will readily switch allegiance and support the opposition if they see that their current “friend” is losing his position.
Just as for chimpanzees, it can be critical for us humans to be able to detect such impostors.
How can we tell the difference? The same way we know what kind of friend we are being. Lasting friendships are built on repeated actions that foster cooperation and support. These behaviours generate memories and emotions. Over time, we find, true friends are witnesses to our lives and become deeply embedded into the experiences we have along the way.
And in a very real way, our friendships may just affect our DNA. A study on African grey parrots provides some interesting insights. Telomeres, the bits of DNA at the end of chromosomes that control the stability of chromosomes and DNA, get shorter with time, which results in more DNA damage and ageing. Researchers found that the rate at which telomeres shorten in Africa grey parrots was influenced by whether or not an individual parrot was socially isolated. Essentially, a parrot kept alone aged faster and had shorter telomeres than other parrots of the same age.
In the end, then, not only does having a solid network of friends reduce stress and lower disease, but it will also increase your lifespan. So go ahead, make a new friend, bond with and old friend, and hug a good friend today.
It'll go a long way toward improving the quality of your life.