Sisterhood is Powerful

A new study is out indicating that having a sister makes a person happier:

“Having a Sister Makes You Happier”: that was the headline on a recent article about a study finding that adolescents who have a sister are less likely to report such feelings as “I am unhappy, sad or depressed” and “I feel like no one loves me.”

These findings are no fluke; other studies have come to similar conclusions. But why would having a sister make you happier?

The whole article is interesting, because it undercuts the idea that sisters are emotionally beneficial because they talk about feelings; rather, the author argues that sisters are emotionally beneficial because sisters talk more, generally, and it’s that act of ongoing communication that creates intimacy and happiness.

Anecdotally, that seems about right to me. I have one sister who is my favorite person in the world, and the person I feel closest to — but when we talk, we don’t usually delve into our feelings, because neither of us are big “feelings-talk” people. We joke around. We tell each other amusing anecdotes. We email each other funny links. But we communicate often. And we travel together at least once a year (and when we do, we basically want to do the same things and stick to the same schedule, which works out well). And we go back to Seattle, where we’re from, together at least once a year, and we spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together, and we meet up a few more times a year on the East Coast just for fun. That time spent, and that communication, lends itself well to closeness.

I don’t have a brother, so I can’t compare that relationship to my relationship with my sister. But what we have? I can’t imagine something better.

38 comments for “Sisterhood is Powerful

  1. Cat
    October 27, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I have a brother and two sisters and this rings true to me, though with caveats. My anecdotal experience may be narrowed by the specifics, so I’ll give them: I’m the oldest of three children in my immediate family, however I also have an older half-sister from my father’s first marriage who is about ten years older than me. My other sister is two years younger than I am, and my brother is six years younger.

    My brother is definitely a taciturn guy, though we talk more now that he’s older than we used to. Despite that, I’ve always considered us pretty close, and my parents behavior seems to support this since they were always asking me to “talk to your brother!” whenever they were unable to make headway with him on some issue or another.

    He and I are still close, I think – I went out to where he lives with my parents to take him out for his 21st birthday – but we don’t really talk. We’ll drop each other funny lines on Facebook from time to time, ask each other advice about different areas in which we are knowledgeable (he asks me about law, I ask him about video games), but to call this an open and frequent line of communication would definitely be an overstatement.

    My sister, interestingly, was largely taciturn while we were younger as well, at least when my parents or anyone outside the family was present. But, she and I still did a lot of sibling things – we made up our own language for a bit, our own code, we stole eachother’s diaries, fought like cats and dogs, and strategically ganged up on our parents when our interests coincided. I always stuck up for her at school, even when it made her angry.

    Now that we’re both adults, my sister and I are extremely close. It’s amazing an amazing difference. We are both more balanced people now than we were as adolescents, unsurprisingly, but we talk often and I’ll often rag her when she doesn’t get online often enough. She lives in Canada now with her husband while I still live in the US so calling on the phone isn’t really feasible.

    I talk to my sister about the things I can’t talk to other friends about. We talk about silly things, anecdotes, politics (she’s actually the person who introduced me to this website), and relationships, often in a very pragmatic manner. We both have very rational approaches to romantic attachments which makes it easier to speak to each other largely because it’s one area where others are surprised by the lack of feelings in the discussion.

    So, do I think I am happier because I have a sister? Yes. And now that I have the maturity to appreciate it, it makes me even happier.

  2. Lindsay
    October 27, 2010 at 10:24 am

    I suppose I’m an outlier because, even though I have a sister, I’m depressed quite often (but it’s typically not the “I’m alone in the world” depression, but the “oh god I can’t get out of bed and dress myself” kind.) Then again, she and I don’t get along well at all, which might have something to do with it! … Actually, it’s because she, along with the rest of my family, are card-carrying members of the religious right, but you know, splitting hairs.

  3. Jadey
    October 27, 2010 at 10:25 am

    My sister and I are drastically and painfully different people – it has taken us both a long time to learn to understand (however imperfectly) how the other lives in the world, and to appreciate that rather than be angered or frustrated by it. It’s a work in progress. People who have been my friends for over a decade and have never heard me raise my voice or even get angry are shocked when I describe the full-on public screaming matches (complete with thrown shoes) I’ve had with my sister (in four major cities and counting). Just to pick on the most obvious difference between us, think about a extreme extrovert and an extreme introvert who both have totally different approaches to personal boundaries and then have them to share a bedroom. Learning to communicate at all has been a struggle, although we’ve improved a lot over the last five years and have biweekly-ish phone conversations now. We try to keep knock-down fights to a minimum of one per visit.

    My grandmother had a similar tumultuous relationship with her younger sister, and it was a life-long give and take of learning. They had completely different lives and values, but respected each other and loved each other dearly, and both my sister and I see resonances of their relationship in ours (although considering my great aunt committed suicide a few years ago, I’m hoping we end things differently).

    We infuriate each other, but we also idolize each other, maybe because we’re so different. The most valuable part of siblinghood for me (as well as, in my case, a particular friendship I’ve had since a very young age that has retained the closeness of siblings) is that no matter what there is a person who understands what my early childhood and family life are like, even if we experienced it somewhat differently. I bawled my eyes out all the way through watching Six Feet Under because that show captured the essence of siblings for me – people you don’t understand, don’t even always like, might not even associate with if you hadn’t grown up with them, but love with the power of the sun raised to infinity. My life would feel empty without my sister.

  4. October 27, 2010 at 10:32 am

    This study makes me miss my brother — he was 21 months younger than me and we were very very close. We had/have crazy parents and moved a lot and pretty much raised one another and were each the person the other one knew best on this earth. Don’t drink and drive folks (thank god he only killed himself).

  5. Miss S
    October 27, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Charlotte- I’m sorry to hear about your brother.

    I have two younger sisters who are 7 and 11 years younger than me, so there is definitely an age gap. One of my sisters is the complete opposite of me. I mean, complete opposite. I’m the high strung, anxiety ridden type a, need to have things planned out, details worked out…she is the easy going, never remembers a deadline, doesn’t pay attention to things like calenders and clocks or the amount of money in her wallet…

    We drive each other crazy, but we also learn alot from each other. Although her laid back attitude is annoying at times, it also reminds me that not everything is that damn serious. And even though my type a personality is annoying at times, (I hope) it reminds her that some things do need to be taken care of in a timely fashion.

  6. PrettyAmiable
    October 27, 2010 at 11:12 am

    @ Lindsay, my sister and I are the same way (until she quits her victim-blaming bullshit, anyway), but I can say pretty definitively that some of my best girlfriends are as close as sisters, and I feel like they count for the purposes of this article. I hope you have friends like this, because familial rifts are tough, and it’s nice to have people who love you.

  7. Ledasmom
    October 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Eh. Loathed my brother when we were young. He’s a good person, very socially responsible and politically active and all that, and I’m glad he’s doing well, but it’s not like I want to talk to him very much, so it’s just as well he lives halfway across the country from me.
    Actually, there’s hardly any people I want to talk to on a regular basis.

  8. millsapian87
    October 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

    My sister is three years older than I. As long as I’ve known her she’s always been an angry person. She was physically abusive to me when we were kids. Example: she would pull my hair HARD to force me to do whatever it was she wanted. She slapped me in the face on one occasion; fortunately my parents saw so that was the only time.

    To this day we are not close. So put me in the “not happier” column.

  9. mk
    October 27, 2010 at 11:40 am

    I’ve often wondered about what it must be like to have a sister. I guess I’ve always assumed sisterhood for me would be very different from the kind many women experience, because I identified very strongly as a tomboy/boy when I was younger, and now fall somewhere on the trans*masculine spectrum. (Indeed, having an older brother, I think I’ve actually experienced much of our relationship through the lens of brotherhood, both experienced and imagined/aspired/etc.)

  10. October 27, 2010 at 11:48 am

    This definitely rings true for me. My sister is two years younger than me, and even though we used to have some pretty vicious fights (and I mean seriously vicious – I have scars, and she once lost a tooth) we are closer than any two people I’ve ever met. I’m still somewhat depressed, but my depression is a genetic medical problem and I can say with absolute certainty that it would be much, much worse if my sister weren’t around. When I was in high school my relationship with her was the only thing that kept me from killing myself, at times. And we weren’t nearly as close back then as we are now.

    Wow, this is really making me miss her. We lived a block away from each other until I left town two months ago, and honestly, not seeing her is the hardest part about being away from home. Claire: if you’re reading this, pick up your damn phone sometime, I know you’re not that busy.

  11. Hannah
    October 27, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I think that definitely applies to brothers, too! I’ve noticed I feel more confident and ready to go out and do things since I moved into the same town as my. We talk a lot more than we used to.

    I don’t have a ‘real’ sister (although several women from my sorority are people that I feel close to and happy about knowing), but when you described your relationship, that was similar to what I know.

  12. isitisabel
    October 27, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    I actually feel a lot closer and tend to communicate more with my brother, although that may be an age issue. I have a sister six years older than me, and my brother is only three years older. As children we were fairly close, but as my sister got into middle and high school, she didn’t want to hang out with her baby sister. I was wrapped up in my own friends, so while there was never any antagonism we weren’t that close. However, whenever we do talk, it always makes that day a good day. She continues to be my biggest role model, and whenever she calls or sends me an email part of me thinks “Wow, my awesome, amazing sister likes me and thinks I’m cool too!”

    On the other hand, my brother and I fought throughout our childhood, until about high school when we both matured a little and bonded over common activities, interests, and opinions. We never really talked about our feelings, but we would regularly have long conversations. Now, in college, we don’t really have time to talk much, but we’ll frequently send each other interesting tidbits. So in my case, my brother is more like a sister?

    In general, there is something to be said about the bond between siblings. The idea that these two people are so closely related to me by blood and upbringing immediately makes them important. No matter how often or infrequently we talk, I always feel comfortable and open with my siblings. Personally, having that kind of connection in my life makes me happy.

  13. That Girl
    October 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    That’s interesting, but I think the trick is not the gender (or lack thereof) of the siblings, and is in fact about the communication.
    Personally, I am without sisters, but have tons of brothers. One brother moved away when I was in 8th grade and didn’t really know me for awhile. As soon as I got to college and had access to a phone that wouldn’t be turned off for non-payment, he would call every week. He was persistent enough that he would call me in my friend’s room if I didn’t answer in my own room.
    We’ve disagreed on lots of things over the years (especially as he went from fundamentalist Christian to Buddhist to Atheist and is now Agnostic), but I love talking to him. Mainly we just share our lives and funny photos of cats, but he is super good at wanting to share his feelings and understanding mine. He even figured out I was gay a full year before I got it & spent a whole lot of patience waiting for me “to talk to him about ANYthing at all.”
    So anecdotally, I think the communication bit is the important part as adult siblings. As a child and teenager, I wanted a sister so desperately.

  14. October 27, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    I have two younger sisters, but neither of us are terribly close. This is because we are all so different. It’s nothing personal, just that each of us are fully developed individuals with our own interests. My partner even noticed it when she met everyone back when we had just started dating.

  15. me
    October 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I feel like I’ve caused nothing but problems for my sister (and brothers). I wasn’t quite abusive towards them, but I was very cold and standoffish as a child and didn’t really want to do things with them, and sometimes we’d get into fights because we were so different. I think also they resent me for taking up so much of my parents’ time, and I can’t really blame them. I regret it now but it’s too late. I was going to say I wasn’t happier for having had a sister and I don’t think my sister is happier for having known me, but then again our relationship was a weird and unusual case so it’s probably a poor example.

  16. Usually Lurking
    October 27, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    My sisters are awesome. But generally speaking this type of study only picks out averages, so I don’t know that my personal anecdotes are really all that relevant.

    I don’t think that more communication is “better” necessarily, since not everyone wants to communicate. But I do note that a flexible ‘good communicator’ is more likely to mesh, as they can match the communication needs of almost any partner. So from a statistical perspective, having better communication ability is a plus.

    If you don’t want to talk and Sister is willing to sit there and stare at a TV, you’re satisfied. If you DO want to talk and Sister is willing to talk, you’re satisfied.

    OTOH, if you want to talk, and if you’re around someone who won’t talk to you, you’re SOL.

  17. RD
    October 27, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Hah, if that’s true I wonder why me and my sisters are three-for-three, as in all three of use have attempted suicide and spent time in mental hospitals.

  18. RD
    October 27, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    I know, I know, it’s true statistically speaking.

  19. Djinna
    October 27, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    My sister is 13 years younger than I am, and my favorite person on the whole planet. The day she was born, and was revealed to be a sister, and not yet another damn brother, was the happiest of my life. I’ve treasured her mere existence ever since, and Juliana Hatfield’s “My Sister” never fails to make me cry. We’ve never talked or hung out often, with the age gap and our generally living apart, since I was off to college when she was off to kindergarten. Deep talk about emotional stuff just has never been part of our relationship, or me in general. Our brothers, love joking around with and talking to them too, nowadays, but my sister is special to me in a way like no other.

  20. Athenia
    October 27, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I have two younger brothers. They kinda hate each other but both of them get along with me. I think they can be a bit more vulnerable around me than they wouldn’t otherwise be.

    But I don’t have sister. :( Boo.

  21. October 27, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Ah, I’ve always wanted a sister. =(

  22. Caroline
    October 27, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Nahida – I was so happy to see your comment after reading all that. I always wanted a sibling, particularly a sister. But alas, am an only child, and have no cousins on one side.

  23. October 28, 2010 at 12:27 am

    Djinna, you remind me of me and my siblings. My sister is fourteen years younger than I am, and we have a bunch of brothers in between My mom is one of five sisters who are all pretty close, and growing up I wanted a sister so desperately. She’s eleven now, and it’s really cool to watch her becoming a person in her own right.

  24. semi-regular, username redacted for privacy
    October 28, 2010 at 5:32 am

    My sister and I certainly did talk, though usually we were fighting, screaming, lying to each other, or trying to kill each other with scissors. We get along better now that we live on opposite sides of the country and only talk occasionally. I hate when people talk about the genetic accident of family being “powerful.” Friendship I’ve cultivated with other women are powerful, in that they empower me. My actual sister (younger) I’m mostly afraid of.

  25. October 28, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Sisterhood has a power that can cut either way. My sister and I were a little too close, our lives too enmeshed, and when the shit hit the fan it was some of the worst pain I’ve even known.

  26. Crystal
    October 28, 2010 at 11:09 am

    I have a younger brother, and I wouldn’t trade him for the world. He is my favorite person, and one of my closest friends. I think he is that sister-figure for me? I don’t know. Maybe siblings in general are great.

  27. Kristin A
    October 28, 2010 at 11:19 am

    My sister and I were very close growing up, yet we drifted apart in our teen years somewhat and now there are a lot of pregnant pauses in telephone conversations. Here’s the thing: In less than a month she’s going to find out she has a sister instead of the brother she thought she had. I am, shall we say, apprehensive.

    I will say this though: Based on current experience, having a sister is a joyful thing.

  28. Jadey
    October 28, 2010 at 11:39 am

    @ Kristin A

    Good luck! I wish you continued joy. :)

  29. PrettyAmiable
    October 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Kristin A: Here’s the thing: In less than a month she’s going to find out she has a sister instead of the brother she thought she had. I am, shall we say, apprehensive.

    I have a dude friend whose father told him she was trans just a few years ago. I really hope that your relationship becomes as strong as theirs is now. My friend definitely had a tough time with it (their relationship had to be redefined somewhat as he had called her “dad” his entire life – they ended up deciding “dad” was still their preferred term), but he’s happier now that his dad is happier too. Good luck! I’m Team Kristin!

  30. October 28, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Best of luck to you Kristin A!

  31. Julie
    October 28, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    I have four younger sisters. I am 29, my sisters are 26, 22, 15 and 14. I am very close to my 26 and 22 year old sisters. We don’t get to see each other as much as I would like, but we have a great time when we get together and they are still two of my absolute favorite people in the world. I love my teenage sisters, but it’s hard to be that close to people 1/2 my age.

  32. PM
    October 28, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Man I love my sister! I love my goody-goody little brothers, too, but my sister and I were able to bond in high school because we both got wasted and sneaked around our parents all the time and/because we both have bad mental illness problems. I don’t know how I’d cope without her. And I can credit feminism, at least in part, to easing me out of the “hyper-protective older brother” role. I think it helped me realize that my hands-off approach to our relationship was not an abdication of responsibility but actually the right way to let her grow up from a girl to a woman.

  33. Spencer
    October 29, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Typical sexist “girls are emotional, boys are rational” blog post.

    My sister is nothing like this, never tells me a thing about her personal life and doesn’t want to hear about mine.

    Nevertheless we’re still close.

  34. Caravelle
    October 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    AHA ! After all these years of complaining about my three little brothers being male and cooking up crazy exchange schemes with my sister-having friends, while said friends all went “You’re crazy, I hate my sister, you’re so lucky you don’t have one”… VINDICATION.

    Too late to get a sister now, sadly :(

  35. Jadey
    October 29, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Spencer: Typical sexist “girls are emotional, boys are rational” blog post.

    The point of the study was that the value isn’t women having more emotional conversations, but simply more conversations overall, which don’t have to be deep or thoughtful or emotion-oriented or anything like that. Unless you think that talking to people is irrational.

  36. Bagelsan
    October 29, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    The point of the study was that the value isn’t women having more emotional conversations, but simply more conversations overall, which don’t have to be deep or thoughtful or emotion-oriented or anything like that.

    I’m wondering if a high frequency of conversations (even shallow little stuff) makes it a bit easier to bring up the important stuff as needed — lowers the activation energy, if you will. My little sisters and I will regularly text each other stuff like “S’up!” or “TGIF! <3" but every now and then I'll get a text like "I just lost my virginity!" ;p

    Having reliable access to another person, who you know you can get ahold of and talk to, might make people happier even if they never need to take advantage of that ready access for anything vital. Just little pings that reassure you that you've got a support network. Perhaps sisters are better at maintaining this kind of network on average.

  37. Susan
    November 1, 2010 at 10:21 am

    It depends entirely on the siblings involved. Isn’t this a bit sexist of a statement? I have 3 sisters and i unfortunately, still deal with depression and anxiety. an odd article.

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