For a while now, I’ve been a fan of Michael Brecht, one of the premier rat ticklers in the world. His lab in Berlin studies play and the brain, in part by tickling rats. When rats play with each other, whether it’s hide-and-seek or wrestling with lots of tickling, they make sounds that are the ratty equivalent of giggling. Play isn’t really well understood in humans or other animals though there is good research going on in the field by Brecht and others. What has been learned so far is that play is pretty important to health, happiness, and sanity. When you have friends and family you can play with, that’s a good thing at any stage of life.
One branch of my family is into board games. Another is all over jigsaw puzzles as a team sport. My immediate family liked card games, among other pursuits. I’m pretty sure I played enough games of Spades with my friends in the student union during undergraduate school to have earned a minor in it. That is at least one good reason to have friends: they are who we play with, and that makes us happy.
What else are friends good for? Dan Buettner, explorer and author, found that in the Blue Zones, the places on Earth where unusually large numbers of people live in good health into their 100’s, having friends is a major contributor to their longevity. Friendships with people who have similar interests and goals, and sustaining those friendships often for decades can contribute to a long and happy life.
But if happiness and longevity aren’t good enough reasons to have friends, how about mutual aid? Lifting a tree off your shed after a wind storm can be pretty daunting, but friends can literally make the load lighter. Who do you call when your car breaks down? AAA, sure, but you might also call a friend. You can hire a service for practically everything these days, but it’s nice to have a friend drop you at the airport and a friendly face greet you when you come home again. Friends help each other out, and you need never fear that you are alone in facing the world.
A friend of mine who just had some pretty major surgery is staying with us for a couple of weeks while he gets through doctor’s appointments and recovery. I can’t imagine not being with a friend or close family member under these circumstances. That’s what friends are for. And friends are for telling you when you really, really need to take a bath, or for warning you not to invest in that dodgy deal, or for begging you to get the heck out of that job before it kills you. Of course, friends can get nosy and can intrude too much, but wouldn’t you rather have an honest opinion from someone who really cares about you than a whole lot of polite indifference while you careen toward the edge of disaster?
So who are these friends, anyway? My cats like to play with me. Cat tickling can be a rather bloody affair, so instead we enjoy hide-and-go-eek and pounce-a-boo, though, like Calvin Ball, I’m not sure anyone really knows what the rules are. Doesn’t matter. They make us laugh in our own ways. And Mikey sits with me in companionable silence in the evenings and sometimes brings me mice for breakfast (though they really aren’t on my diet, I appreciate the effort). My best friend, of course, is my amazing husband, but there are many others. Some of my friends are holdovers from my working days, some I have worshiped with, some are neighbors. I have friends who live close by and others continents away.
And what do we owe our friends? I would say to advise without intrusion, suggest without dictating, watch each others backs, make each other’s bail, help hide the body…. Well, maybe not that last one. But certainly we need to care for and about our friends and to make them laugh, with or without the tickling.
Image: Jan, Chris and me, hanging in the desert. Photographer unknown.