Women assembling in one another's courtyards in small towns for an afternoon session of 'papad' rolling. Women lingering at the village well for an extended chat. Neighborhood women getting together after dinner to sing 'bhajans' (devotional songs). Getting together for lunch with old school friends ... kitty parties ... Tambola (Housie) sessions.
Common to all these diverse images of women's congregations is the fact that men see them as frivolous, trivial, inane, wasteful pastimes, only worthy of jokes. But now comes a study from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) that says such and other female bonding activities serve as very important stress management strategies; and that they even have quantifiable health benefits that males miss out on.
Up until this study - by Dr Laura Cousino Klein and researcher Shelley Taylor - was published, scientists generally believed that stress levels trigger a rush of hormones to prepare the body to fight or flee. This study, however, indicates that women have a larger response repertoire than was hitherto understood - more than just the two black or white, flee or fight responses.
Significantly, the study indicates that women under stress manifest a different response - by turning to nurture children or by reaching out to other women for bonding and solace.
The impetus to carry out the study came through an 'Aha! moment' one day at a laboratory in UCLA. The joke in the office was that when women were stressed, they turned to cleaning the lab, having coffee or bonding; whereas the men under stress just holed up somewhere on their own. When Klein commented (to Taylor) that 90 per cent of the research on stress was on males, and they followed it up with data scrutiny, the two women realized they were really on to something. And what they have found is being described as a landmark study that has "turned five decades of stress research upside down".
Woman-to-woman friendships and bonding or 'hanging out with friends' serve the purpose of "filling the emotional gaps in our marriages". Besides, says the study published in 'Psychological Review', when women are under stress, the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the response to stress. This encourages a woman to tend to children or seek the company of other women, and when she is so engaged, more oxytocin is released - which counters stress and has a calming effect.
According to Klein, such a calming effect does not occur in males because the hormone testosterone seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Men produce high levels of testosterone when under stress, while the female hormone estrogen appears to enhance the effect of oxytocin.
Women who turn to other women in or for friendship lower the risks of early death; they also heal faster in times of bereavement or other trauma. An earlier study at Harvard Medical School - the Nurses Health Study - also found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop health problems as they aged; and that women with good or more friends were likely to experience more joy in their lives. Not having close friends (or confidantes), concluded the study, could be as detrimental to health as smoking or obesity!
Seen in the light of the findings of such studies, being with friends and talking to them about oneself with ease, is a "healing experience".
Taken a step further, these findings may also explain the rise in 'male' kind of ailments (like heart disease or hypertension) in women who establish themselves as achievers in so-called male bastions. This, because success in such a domain is often equated with 'becoming more like a man' in terms of behavioral responses - aggressive, work driven, emotionally controlled and so on.
The question is: Should women become 'more like men' if they aim to be successful? No, warns this study indirectly. It could bring sweet success in a male-dominated world but it could also carry a price tag in the shape of health hazards.
Under modern lifestyle norms, not being on a fast track, or not rushing from one piece of work to another, is seen as 'wasting time'. And it is only in recent times that the importance of relaxation and letting go periodically has been emphasized as good management strategy.
The UCLA study extends the same logic, from the single dimension of time to the two-dimensional reckoning, sharing and caring, which are cited as archetypal 'female' tendencies. Perhaps it is time for men to consider being 'more like women', in the sense of reaching out, bonding, and nurturing, as part of a regimen for better health.
And as Klein says, there's no doubt that friends are helping us to live longer!