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In praise of lifelong friendships

New research shows that close friendships in childhood can be good for your health. No kidding, says Zoë Beaty. Here's to the pals who stick around 

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By Zoë Beaty on

It’s October 1999 and I am 11. I’m wearing an emerald-green polo shirt and a very short, pleated skirt that I am self-consciously pulling down. It’s fucking freezing. A teacher keeps yelling at me that I’m cold because I’m “not moving enough, Zoe!”, but just when I’m about to shout back that I’ll move right off this bloody court in a minute, I catch the eye of another girl. She’s pelting about like nobody’s business and I’m suddenly embarrassed. Eliza is really very good at netball and now she’s encouraging me to be better – by staring me out. I wish she wouldn’t, because it’s making me feel ashamed of my own apathy. Begrudgingly, I start to run.

Eliza, it turns out, is a pain in arse at netball. She is the captain and a workhorse, and she will not have it when I hide from her at lunchtime to avoid practice. I join forces with Leanne, a girl in my form and a tiny, nippy wing attack who out-sprints the best of them. We go to practice together and I roll my eyes a lot. I run as little as is humanly possible in a netball game and, unsurprisingly, I don’t get much better at it. I don’t know it at the time, but over the next few years on those same courts, I make loyal, forgiving, frustrating, fun friends, who are really very good at netball, but who also shape the next two decades of my life.

Eliza and Leanne are now not only my best friends but, for the last two years, they’ve been my housemates, too. While we were warned that living together might ruin the friendship we’ve enjoyed for almost 20 years now, I have been the happiest I’ve ever felt in our house. And, according to a new study, there could be a reason for that.

Of course, we all know by now that good friendships, like relationships, are good for us. It’s natural that knowing someone has got your back, permanently, and vice versa, will make us feel happy and secure. But a paper published last month in the journal Child Development delved further than most studies on friendship and paid particular attention to childhood friendships. Having a childhood best friend – or, as in my case, two – or a close friendship formed in adolescence could have a directly positive effect on your wellbeing as an adult.

The research was a thorough examination of the long-term effects of friendship from childhood to adulthood. Tracking the mental health of 169 people at three points during their lives – age 15, 16 and 25 – the study authors asked participants to identify their best friend and interviewed the two of them. Across a participant pool of racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse people, the results were conclusive: those who had much closer, high-quality friendships as teens (with a “high degree of attachment, intimate exchange and support”) had were less likely to have social anxiety and depression, but more likely to have a higher sense of self-worth as adults, aged 25.

“We weren’t surprised that better adolescent close friendships turned out to be important, but we were surprised by just how important they turned out to be into adulthood,” Rachel Narr, the lead author on the study and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Virginia. Notably, they said, having fewer friends who were closer – rather than striving to be the popular kid – had the greatest positive effect. A correlating study also found that best friendships strengthen with age and protect us from not only loneliness but chronic diseases.

Now we know each other well enough to leave it when one of us needs space. We have a strict 'no judgement' rule, so we can always tell the truth, no matter how harrowing

How can a friendship protect us from so much? Perhaps it’s because we invest so much in it, or perhaps it’s because the more we invest of ourselves in it – and the more we get back from someone else, the bigger the safety net is. And if a friendship is based on formative experiences – like spending hours on a landline dissecting exactly what sex felt like, hours after “doing it” for the first time (Leanne and me); or Christmas Day nights, smuggling booze to make cocktails in mugs, or playing embarrassingly lame duets together (Eliza and me); or I’ll-never-forget-this holidays to the seaside; or tears, on kitchen floors littered with empty packets of crisps (all of us) – it’s grounded in the very things that made you who you are.

Turns out that my friends are the type who would paint an entire hallway the morning after an out-of-control house party to save me getting in trouble with my mum when she got home (safety net), and didn’t utter a word of it until a few months ago, 15 years later, when we confessed after a few beers (loyalty).

Our friendship – nestled in a tight-knit group of around six or seven – was based on fun, but it also created a solid foundation for when we inevitably fucked up, or haemorrhaged confidence as our school bubble burst and life charged at us. It has transcended teenage angst, university, good boyfriends, terrible ones, good jobs, terrible ones, family drama and grief. Like most, none of us have been immune to issues with mental health, least of all me. But perhaps, as this study implies, knowing we’re there, quite permanently it seems, could have helped us deal with them. Maybe we all felt a bit safer. Maybe being close to a select few made us better at being measured later in life. Regardless, as we approach 30, I’m grateful and quite amazed, especially at times when I feel low or most anxious, that the foundation we cobbled together during scrappy netball matches – and sleepovers and awkward first kisses and the collective, all-encompassing fear that we wouldn’t get served in the local – is now a full-blown home.

We still drink too much, and sing too loudly, and fight over the best spot on the sofa as we did as teenagers. Our house parties are less wild, with more Sam Cooke and wine that costs more than a fiver for a box – we haven’t caused any damage, if you ignore one ill-fated late-night foray involving roller skates during which Leanne broke her nose last year. I still chase them round the house, reading poetry I like out loud, and they still tell me to “Please, shut the fuck up” in response.

But now we know each other well enough to leave it when one of us needs space, and when to do the opposite. We’ve ordered our friendship: we have a strict “no judgement” rule for each other, so we can always tell the truth, no matter how harrowing, and we don’t hesitate to say when we’re being dicks to each other or to other people. They’re both still brilliantly funny and fun, and now they’re successful, too – Leanne is a senior physiotherapist and Eliza a food designer for huge brands. We’ve got each other’s backs and I’d happily say they are like my sisters, if Eliza didn’t tell me not to be a twat when I say things like that. I respect them. They think I’m too soft and romantic. Eliza is still a pain in the arse about netball.

Still now, just as they did at school, when I stop caring about myself, they remind me to. They tell me to tidy my room, read a book, not to open that bottle of wine, to go for a run instead. I still try to avoid running, just as I did all those years ago, but, just as they did when we were 11, they encourage me to be better. In fact, they don’t bloody shut up about it. So, begrudgingly, I start to run.


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