Want to live a long and happy life? Have lots of friends. Studies in humans show that strong relationships are associated with a better ability to fight illness, slow ageing and even prolong life.

Now there’s evidence that "survival of the nicest" in an adaptation with deep evolutionary roots that applies to many mammals — including baboons. 

Baboons live in matriarchal groups

As seen in The Nature of Things doc Mommy Wildest, baboons live in tight matriarchal societies of moms, daughters, aunts and nieces for their entire lives. “One of the things that daughters learn from their mothers, is social relationships and how to be a good friend,” says Jeanne Altman, an ecology professor from Princeton University who has been studying baboons at Amboseli National Park in Kenya for decades.

Baboons use grooming to cement social bonds — an activity that involves picking dirt and dead skin out of each other’s fur. It’s the primate equivalent of gossip or a good conversation over a coffee.

Studying baboon social bonds

Using data spanning 27 years, Altman and her colleagues measured social connectedness by tracking how often each engaged in social grooming sessions relative to the rest of the group. “Females really do seem to be attracted to social partners who are going through similar life history stages to them. Females who mature together seem to form especially strong bonds. Females who have babies at the same time, females who are ageing together. It’s as if they have common interests,” notes Susan Alberts who also works on the Amboseli Research Project.

The top 25 per cent of most socially connected females were 34 per cent less likely to die in a given year than the females in the bottom 25 per cent. It appears that socializing may reduce stress, boost immune function and improve a baboon’s access to food and water, increasing her odds of survival.

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The friendliest females live two to three years longer than their socially isolated peers. To baboons, who live at most 20-30 years, this is a big difference. It gives them an extra few years to have more offspring, which increases their genetic legacy.

At the effect isn’t limited to females either. New research shows that socializing with the males can have the same result. The females who were friendly with both sexes lived the longest.
 

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