Should men invest more in friendships?

Should men invest more in friendships?
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Social bonding increases oxytocin levels in rats – and possibly men as well. Photograph: Jamie Garbutt/Getty Images

BONDING with other guys may relieve stress in men, according to media reports of research published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology last week. Men who are close with each other have higher levels of oxytocin, popularly known as the “cuddle hormone” which makes them better at handling stress.

The research, however, comes from a rat study, and – while rodents are often used as stand-ins for humans, because they similar biological and genetic characteristics – you’d have to assume there are differences. The researchers put pairs of rats in cages together for a week and then put each one in a small confined space for three hours. When they were reunited, the rats were even friendlier than before they had been stressed.

Elizabeth Kirby, an author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, says: “We can’t speak rat, but we think the rats can’t wait to tell their friend that some weird people shut them in a room.” They even touched each other more. But before they could have too much fun, the researchers measured the oxytocin levels in their brains (which pretty much ended the friendship). They found that the levels of oxytocin among rats with mates were higher. The study didn’t test whether male rats got the same benefit in stress reduction from being roomed with a female rat because, says Kirby, they can’t stay platonic. They invariably have sex.

Kirby maintains that there is a takehome message for men who aren’t rats. Being social increases levels of oxytocin and protects you from being stressed. Men, she says, are sometimes accused of having superficial friendship, but her research suggests that a bromance doesn’t have to be deep to have health benefits. “Any sort of social bonding increases oxytocin levels – it doesn’t have to be a deep discussion,” she says. So is this the excuse you needed to have a pint with your mates?

The solution

In the world of human-friend research, men are said to have “shoulder to shoulder” friendships while women have “face to face” ones. What this means, says Geoffrey L Greif, who has interviewed 400 men and 120 women about their friendships, is that men like to do things and women like to sit down and chat. “Women will say: ‘My boyfriend went out for dinner and didn’t find out his friend was getting divorced,’” says Grief. “Men don’t need to express themselves as much as women in friendships.”

Many studies show that friendships not only relieve stress but also reduce death from many causes, including heart disease. Also, although it may seem counterintuitive, men with friends are less likely to drink and smoke to excess. Another good reason for encouraging bromances. theguardian.co.uk

By Luisa Dillner

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