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Friends

Why We Need Friendship

We all need our friends. How much do you appreciate them?

Key points

  • Friends can disappear, sometimes, very suddenly, throwing us back on our own resources.
  • Many feel if they can't rely on friends or family, then they must rely on themselves.
  • Self-reliance and individualism are not always enough to counteract loneliness.

Friends are important. We know that. But many middle-aged men report few friends and “feelings of isolation and loneliness” according to the Guardian (2023), which invites men to tell how they made new friends. In the UK, Theresa May established a minister for loneliness in 2018, to help resolve a devastating health problem. Annual reports are available online. Japan already has a Minister for Loneliness and an aging population. In the US, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy has also addressed the issue recently (New York Times 30 April 2023), as have several recent bloggers on Psychology Today. “All the lonely people” sang the Beatles, with prescience.

The value of friendship has been known for millennia. Cicero, who died in 44 BCE, the year after Caesar was murdered, wrote a long essay called “On Friendship,” in which he said: “All I, myself, can do is to urge you to place friendship above every other concern that can be imagined!” And he added: “Friendship may be defined as a complete identity of feeling about all things in heaven and earth: an identity which is strengthened by mutual good will and affection.” (1971: 185, 187).

Francis Bacon first published his “Essays” in 1597. “Of Friendship” echoed much of Cicero, more briefly, and described the three “fruits” of friendship: “peace in the affections and support in the judgment”: “no receipt [prescription] openeth the heart but a true friend, to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatever lieth upon the heart to oppress it.” Adding the doubling of joys effect and the halving of troubles shared. Second is “the counsel that a friend giveth.” Third is “like the pomegranate, full of many kernels: I mean aid and bearing a part of all actions.” From caring for the family after you are gone to everything and anything. It is a sweet little essay, perhaps inspiring one to try an essay oneself.

Nearly 400 years later (March 1979), Psychology Today surveyed friendship and its counterpart, loneliness. Forty thousand people responded, not a representative sample but certainly indicative of American ideas, with comments by experts. The researchers noted the many types of friendship: childhood, work, neighbours, activities (children, sports, chess, etc.), and their utility. Loners commented that they enjoyed solitude, which is not the same as loneliness. Respondents said that their top three criteria for friendship were: keeps confidences, loyalty, and warmth and affection (all over 80 percent). Authors commented on the stages of development from children to adults, as children negotiate their steps to individuality away from family to friends not based on genetics. Sadly, 67 percent of both male and female respondents felt lonely “sometimes or often." (Too big a difference to collate them.) The young (under 18) 79 percent much more than the older (55+) only 37 percent. (Parlee et al. 1979; Bensman and Lilienfeld, 1979; Selman and Selman, 1979).

Yet we can lose all our friends so quickly. How? Let me count the ways.

  • Commit a heinous crime and go to prison, and your friends will deny you.
  • Be the guilty party when you have an affair with a married person, thus initiating two divorces and destroying two families, and become a pariah.
  • Get really sick. I used to work in a hospice for mentally and physically ill men. In the month I was there, only one family came to visit the 16 or so patients, and they were horrified when a nude man walked off the ward and strolled around before being escorted politely back to his ward. We are a death-denying culture, except for entertainment with videos and films. Similarly, we do not like serious illness. It is an intimation of mortality.
  • Retire. One minute, you are somebody, with friends and colleagues. Next, you are a nobody. Friends? Gone. Never heard from again. (Overstating it just a little, but not much.)

Their view is, and mine must have been when my colleagues retired: What’s past is past. Don’t look back, they may be gaining on you. History is bunk, as Ford said. Even our own history, presumably. But not to psychologists, who often see it as the core of our personalities, or at least, what we make of our past. Similarly, the medical profession is concerned about our past in terms of susceptibility to disease and possibly genetic predispositions.

It is difficult to keep friends, even in the best of times. Some betray you in any number of different ways—even spouses, as the divorce rates indicate. Others move away. Some become busy with new lives: spouses, children, jobs. Some must choose sides after a divorce. And some are alienated from their children by the custodial parent, usually the wife. Some find more useful connections. Friendship is often utilitarian.

Some may stick by you through thick and thin. The Three Musketeers are an example, albeit fictitious. “All for one and one for all.” This is echoed in the military, notably in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers.

Sometimes family is all that is left. As the saying goes: “Blood is thicker than water.” Yes, but it is not glue. It is soluble, due to both geographic and social mobility, the generational estrangement of either parents or children due to any number of factors, at worst resulting in so-called “honour killings."

Hence, all these feelings of isolation and loneliness. Women seem better protected with more friends and more open communication, perhaps. Similar loneliness rates prevail in the Psychology Today survey, but then men might not admit to it. At any rate, women have much lower suicide (and homicide) rates, which seems like better mental health.

Conclusion

We know that there are no guarantees in life; not even our friends. Sometimes they will help you and be there for you when you need them; sometimes they won’t. This may depend on how they feel, their circumstances at the time, what you want, whether they think the relationship is too unbalanced, and whether you have outlived your usefulness. You may need them more than they need you.

If we cannot rely on friends, and perhaps even family (and often we can) then we must rely on ourselves: the Emerson way of self-reliance and individualism. But this may not be enough. Aristotle wrote: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” (Politics 1253a) If we are neither, we must rethink.

Just as families are the building blocks of societies, so friendship and love are the building blocks of families. Friends are the antidotes to loneliness, the countervailing power to the family of birth, the necessities for an autonomous identity, and the channels to new realities and identities.

So perhaps this would be an appropriate time to re-evaluate and revitalize our friendships, after the pandemic. They will help to restore our sanity.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Bacon, Francis 1985 [1597]. “Of Friendship.” Essays. Edited John Pitcher. Penguin Classics: 136-144.

Bensman, Joseph and Robert Lilienfeld 1979. “Friendship and Alienation”. Psychology Today. October: 56-80, 114.

Cicero, 1971. “Laelius: On Friendship.” On The Good Life. Trans. Michael Grant. Penguin Classics: 175-227.

Guardian, 2023. Men in middle age: how have you made new friends? Since April 16.

Parlee, Mary Brown and the editors of Psychology Today 1979. “The Friendship Bond.” Psychology Today. October: 43-54, 114.

Selmam, Robert L. and Anne P. Selman, 1979. “Children’s ideas about friendships: A new theory.” Psychology Today. October: 71-80, 114.

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