Tag: Friendship

The Evolutionary Benefit of Friendship

Healthy friendships offer far more than a reliable person to share a beer with. Research shows they can make us healthier, wealthier, happier and overall more successful. Here’s how.

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Is friendship important for our survival?

At first glance, the answer isn’t obvious. Other relationships get more play: romantic partners, parents and kids, families, professional networks. It’s easy to find books on improving your marriage or your relationship with your coworkers. The ability to create and maintain friendships, though, seems a bit taken for granted. Often it appears that either we all do it with relative ease, or we just don’t care. We have a feeling that neither of these is true.

Friendships require sustained effort that can often be just as confusing to navigate as a marriage. Over time they will go through ups and downs, face challenges from time pressures or geographical constraints, and have to resolve misunderstandings. And these are the good ones. We also have to try out many friends to find the ones who stick, and weed out the ones who turn out to be bad for us. And unlike our ancestors, we have to put a lot of effort into considering what is a friend, given the seemingly infinite number of connections we can make on social media.

Our ability to form relationships with people who aren’t related to us, however, is a critical skill that helped turn us into humans. It’s a fundamental part of who we are.

Biologically, our ability to develop and maintain social connections is directly related to the size of our brain. The research of Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s Number, one of our mental models), has demonstrated that because we are limited by our brain capacity, the fitness advantage of larger social groups was a driver in the evolution of parts of the brain. Other scientists have corroborated this idea that our larger brains are primarily a social versus ecological adaptation. It wasn’t because we happened to have a bigger brain for say, hunting, that we pursued complex social relationships, but rather that these relationships were critical for the evolutionary development of neocortical capacity. Friends made us smarter and gave us more potential.

Looking at ourselves through a biological lens also suggests that one of the obvious advantages to friendships is the diversity they create. If you are being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it would be nice to be able to rely on more than one individual for help. And, perhaps more importantly, your chances of thwarting the tiger are increased if you are part of a tribe that includes people with different skill sets. Someone who understands tiger behavior, someone who can kill it, and someone who can treat any resulting wounds could be helpful. Furthermore, being part of this diverse group means that when the environment changes, someone can likely adapt and lead the way for everyone else.

In a modern context, having diversity in our relationships has multiple applications. For one, it doesn’t make much sense to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Committed romantic partners are wonderful, but if they die the last thing you want to be is alone. Your survival is quite literally dependent on having close friends who can support you through the hard times. And having friends with different specialties, interests, strengths and weaknesses can help us test out ideas and develop our character by giving us a safe space to experiment.

What about the value of friends who are smarter or better at the things we aspire to do? As in dealing with the tiger, friends with different talents can help us realize our own potential.

In her book The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver provides a convincing argument for the value of friends. They are worth it for the benefit to cardiovascular health alone! Interestingly, she writes that “social integration and close relationships are the most important predictors of mortality, well above things like alcohol consumption, exercise and diet.” With a network of reliable friends, we live longer and in better health. And good friends make us feel good. There is a reciprocity that Leaver explores in all sorts of manifestations, demonstrating just how amazing friendships can be for the quality of our lives.

The value of friendship has been evident for a long time. Aristotle devoted a good part of the Nicomachean Ethics to contemplating friendship, but took it as self-evident that friends were important. He wrote, “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Defining what makes a good friend, fine, he could spend some time on that, but there was no doubt that friendship itself was “a necessary component of happiness.”

To really see the value of friends, think of your social ecosystem, the web of interpersonal connections that you engage with as you live your life. Leaver asks, “what do we get from friendship that we don’t get from romantic relationships, family or work?” When you answer this question, you’ll see where your friends fit.

The answers are going to be different for everyone. It could be that friends provide you with a place to go to admit your fears and frustrations without being judged, or a history of yourself that you tap into to keep you grounded, or someone to go to axe throwing with on Thursday nights. The point is, we can get profound positives from friends that we cannot get in our other relationships.

We become who we are in great part because of the friends we have. — Alexander Nehamas

Aristotle also said that “though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not.” Yes, they do take work. But the good news is that if you put some effort into learning what it means to be a good friend, the rest isn’t going to feel like work at all. Why? Alexander Nehamas writes in On Friendship that friendship “provides companionship and a safety net when we are in various kinds of trouble; it offers sympathy for our misfortunes, discretion for our secrets, encouragement for our efforts.”

So why does friendship seem to get relegated to the bottom of our relationship endeavors? Leaver argues that “we’ve built a culture of individuality without knowing how to be alone successfully or how to truly combat loneliness.” If friendship becomes another check box on your daily to-do list, you’re probably not going to feel like you actually have friends. That kind of social interaction is going to feel more stressful than beneficial, and consequently you will likely start to avoid it.

A further consideration is that friendship seems to go by the wayside as we pursue the things we believe we need to consider ourselves successful. Material goods, titles, fame, a large number of social media followers. Whatever.

But Leaver’s point is that friends are actually a key component of success. Without them we become isolated and vulnerable to loneliness, pain, and poor health. With them we live longer, with more laughter and less fear, and a higher quality of life. Doesn’t that sound like something worth some effort?

A Lesson in Friendship

Around 10:00 pm one night when I was 16 my cell phone rang with a panicked voice on the other side.  My best friend was barely able to remain calm enough to get words out of his mouth.

After a bit of time, I figured out that he was at his girlfriend’s high school dance. A few things happened and a bunch of the local hooligans were gonna jump him when the dance was over at 11. So I dutifully snuck out of the house, took the car, and drove to meet him to help.

When I look back on this moment I can’t decide if it was a brilliant act of courage and friendship or pure teenage stupidity. The now older me asks what causes someone to drive to a near-certain walloping. The younger me still answers: friendship. If you won’t lay it on the line for your friends, who will you lay it on the line for?

I tend to agree with Henry Miller, who wrote: “Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer.”

What Makes A Good Friend?

While I thought I was a good friend, until recently I’ve never spent much time thinking about what makes for a good friend.

When the chips are down and the odds are nearly impossible, I wanted people to be able to count on me. I might not be at your Super Bowl party, but if you needed help I would drop everything and be there in an instant.

This was the type of friend I wanted to be. That’s the friend I still am. What I missed is that there is more to friendship than being there for someone else.

All through my life my friends have confessed their deepest struggles and conflicts with me. I know about marriage issues, affairs, financial struggles. You name it. I suspect If you polled my friends, I’d be the first person they would call if they killed someone and needed to bury the body.

I am the wartime consigliere. However in times of peace — which is the vast majority of the time spent in friendships — I wasn’t the first person people called.

Vulnerability Goes Both Ways

No matter what was going on in my life – no matter my struggles, errors, or mistakes, I never called my friends for help. I wanted to be self-sufficient. I thought that made me strong.

“The wise man is self-sufficient,” said Lucilius. He wants for nothing. He needs nothing. Chrysippus declared that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool.”

I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve ever called anyone and said something to the effect of: I really need you right now. I never knew how many of these cards you’d get in a lifetime and I certainly didn’t want to waste one on whatever was troubling me at the moment. This has been one of my biggest shortcomings.

Seneca has some good thoughts on the matter. In epistle III, he writes:

There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters, which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.

Hiding Struggles is Weakness not Strength

If I had struggles in my life my friends would sometimes never know. I’m not entirely sure if I was hiding these things from them or hiding them from myself. I felt that if I verbalized my struggles, they’d become real.

When I told one of my best friends I was getting divorced, his response caught me off guard. He replied saying something to the effect of ‘as with many things in your life Shane, I had no idea.’

The unspoken message was clear: I would have been here for you, why didn’t you let me be there for you?

In that instant it hit me. I wasn’t the friend I needed to be because friendship is more than being there for your friends, it’s also allowing your friends to be there for you.

For the longest time I thought that avoiding vulnerability was strength. It’s not. It takes a lot more strength to make yourself vulnerable than it does to keep the walls up and stay protected.

Since this blog is about learning the best of what other people have figured out, I wanted to share this very personal lesson with you.

Henry Miller on The Complicated Relationship Between Friendship and Aging

Henry Miller Chapbook

Shortly after his 80th birthday, Henry Miller wrote an essay on aging. More of a treatise on living life, it was published in 1972 in a chapbook titled On Turning Eighty. Only 200 copies of the book were ever made, with each signed and numbered by the author.

In on section, on the complicated relationship between aging and friendship Miller’s brilliance is on full display.

What most people fear when they think of old age is the inability to make new friends. If one ever had the faculty of making friends one never loses it however old one grows. Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer. I have never had any trouble making friends, in fact, it has sometimes been a hindrance, this facility for making friends. There is an adage which says that one may judge a man by the company he keeps. I often wonder about the truth of this. All of my life I have been friends with individuals belonging to vastly different worlds. I have had, and still have, friends who are nobodies, and I must confess they are among my best friends. I have been friends with criminals and with the despised rich. It is my friends who have kept me alive, who have given me the courage to continue, and who have also often bored me to tears. The one thing I have insisted on with all of my friends, regardless of class or station in life, is to be able to speak truthfully. If I cannot be open and frank with a friend, or he with me, I drop him.

On love and friendship, Miller writes:

The ability to be friends with a woman, particularly the woman you love, is to me the greatest achievement. Love and friendship seldom go together. … In all of my life I have known only a few couples who were friends as well as lovers.

Although the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased, On Turning Eighty, was a wonderfully fascinating read.