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Her book proved we need friends. 2 months later, COVID-19 broke our social lives

Science journalist Lydia Denworth knew her book “Friendship” was important. Now everyone else is realizing it, too.

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Lydia Denworth, left, author of “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.”

Jessica Barthel Photography, W. W. Norton & Co.

SALT LAKE CITY — Lydia Denworth just can’t escape people.

The science journalist is now staying at a three-house farmstead in central New York state with her family and three other families — 12 people total — far away from her normal Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s the “social cohort” approach to COVID-19 quarantining. 

“So I haven’t been entirely alone,” she explained. “In fact, that’s probably been the hardest thing, is that it’s a lot of togetherness.”

Togetherness, though — what it means, how it impacts us, what we do without it — has made Denworth an unlikely spokesperson lately. Her newest book, “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond” (WW Norton, 312 pages), was released in January. (Her previous books explore lead poisoning regulations, the science behind sound and language, and the deaf community.) Since the release of “Friendship,” a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has upended our social lives and forced a widespread reevaluation of friendship’s importance.

Denworth was in California promoting her book in late February, “And I remember waking up there and thinking, ‘You know what, March is not going to look like I thought it was going to look.’” Her promotional gigs halted as the United States instituted quarantine measures. She and her family left Brooklyn for the countryside. Meanwhile, news outlets scrambled to cover a pandemic that was impacting, well, practically everything. Rather quickly, though, the cultural conversation landed on everything Denworth had spent the previous few years researching. She noticed a certain cycle of news stories emerge.

“First it was ‘friends need to help each other,’ and then it was ‘you need to be able to keep connecting,’ and then it was ‘I hate Zoom, what do I do?’” she said.

Suddenly, Denworth and her book were in high demand. Interviews on National Public Radio and “Armchair Expert” with Dax Shepard, among others, placed Denworth’s research into a timely discussion about our friendships, how we treat them during a pandemic, and what we do once life returns to normal.

‘Friendship is about showing up’

The takeaways from Denworth’s “Friendship” seem prescient now. Its central thesis — that friendship is just as vital to our health as diet and exercise — has become abundantly manifest in recent months.

The current pandemic, Denworth said, “highlighted the loss of what we rely on in a time of crisis — which is to come together with our friends and loved ones and find comfort in socializing — and that was the one thing we weren’t allowed to do.” On the flip side, however, was some good news: We still have numerous ways to connect with each other virtually.

Yes, those ways include social media. And no, social media isn’t the demon it’s often made out to be. The reality is far more nuanced, particularly in these times of physical estrangement, and people are now forced to acknowledge the nuance.

“We’ve rewritten the script on that discussion,” Denworth said. “Most of the conversation about social media and relationships and well-being is about displacement — it’s about what time on social media is taking you away from. That’s the conversation a lot of people want to have. Now, of course, it’s moved for the moment. And it’s the only way we have to connect with people. So now we have to ask better, more sophisticated questions about how that works.”


Lydia Denworth using the virtual conferencing app Zoom with her friends.

Lydia Denworth

In monkeys, evolutionary biologists have concluded that friendship requires three things: cooperation, positivity and long-lasting duration. Denworth’s book asserts that the same is true for humans. The cooperative component of friendship might feel less obvious during social isolation, but Denworth said this cooperative part encompasses helping — the reciprocal, “looking out for each other” side of things — “and we can do that from a distance,” she said. “And people have been doing that from a distance, even if it’s just checking in.

“I say this a lot, but friendship is about showing up,” she continued. “And I really believe that you can show up from a distance.”

A major way of showing up, Denworth said, is by simply listening. And that, too, can be done remotely.

“So when you’re having a really bad day and you’re just sick of this and had enough of it, your friend will listen to you,” Denworth said. “And then you’re going to need to listen to your friend when that emotion washes over your friend — because it will.”

Denworth is currently writing a feature on resilience during a pandemic. New research, she said, is finding that people who have more “pro-social” interactions per day — meaning positive experiences from volunteering or helping someone, albeit from a distance — are lately having better mental health outcomes day to day. This pandemic, she then explained, provides an opportunity to “double up” on positive social practices by organizing volunteer efforts with friends — you get the benefit of helping another person, and of cooperating with a friend.

Young vs. old, short vs. long

Generally, friendship impacts certain age groups differently. Denworth’s new book cites research indicating friendships are relatively less important to people who are middle aged, since that’s a time when careers and family are prioritized, and relatively more important to adolescents and the elderly.

Of course, a pandemic is not a normal situation. And plenty of deviations exist right now — “there are some teenagers for whom not going to prom … was actually a relief,” Denworth quipped. Generally, though, the numbers on pandemic-era loneliness, and which age groups are most affected, remain consistent with these age groupings.

Long-term loneliness affects health in numerous ways. Luckily, a pandemic quarantine is relatively short term, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. Short-term loneliness, Denworth explained, functions as a physical warning.

“It’s your body telling you that you need to connect, just like when you’re hungry or thirsty. But you can meet that need,” she said. “Short-term loneliness, it’s a signal, and you need to pay attention to it because it’s telling you something important. It’s also giving you a chance to kind of ward off the longer-term effects.

“A little loneliness, on some level, is serving the purpose of telling you that it’s time to connect, or that this is something you’re missing,” Denworth continued. “A lot of loneliness is just not good for us.”

“There’s all these other ‘should should shoulds,’ and friendship is rarely seen as a ‘should.’” — Lydia Denworth

In her estimation, people are coping with pandemic-induced loneliness relatively well, all things considered. And any long-term physical damage from this current loneliness is probably unlikely.

The science on friendship, Denworth said, gives people permission to spend more time with friends, and also focus on the friends who matter most. You don’t have to maintain the same level of friendship with everyone, but the friendships which are most valuable to you are indeed essential. Having this message sink in, on a wide scale, is one silver lining of an otherwise horrible pandemic.

“Most people want to do it, but they feel guilty somehow — if that’s how they’re spending their time, they feel like they should be working or they should be taking care of their family, they should be cleaning up their house,” Denworth said. “You know, there’s all these other ‘should should shoulds,’ and friendship is rarely seen as a ‘should.’”

Friendships, Denworth assured, are something you can build at any age, even if it feels more difficult than it used to. In times of struggle, having a “bench” of reliable friends, be it one or 100, is what makes the difference.

So no, Denworth can’t escape people — and for our own sakes, neither can we.

“What I hope is that we will take it seriously going forward, and that when we are able to reconnect in person, we will be a little bit more diligent,” she said. “We don’t always do better, because you can’t live your life day in and day out always on the verge of crisis. But I do hope that it’s been a wakeup call to people.”