Thursday, November 7, 2019

Why Friendship Matters

Were we to identify the most significant flaw in psychological theorizing we would say that it lies in the tendency to overemphasize the importance of family relations. The profession has even defined extra familial relationships in terms that apply most clearly to family ties.

The topic is so important that I am writing a book about it. 

Thus, the psycho profession has ignored friendships and especially those more superficial contacts with people we call acquaintances. And yet, Tara Parker-Pope reminds us in a masterful article on the importance of friendship, these “weak ties” are vitally important:

While the ties are not strong, the benefits of these relationships can be great. They provide networking opportunities and make us feel more connected to other social groups. A 2014 study found that the more weak ties a person has, the happier he or she feels. Maintaining this network of acquaintances also contributes to one’s sense of belonging to a community, researchers found.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much effort to cultivate these low-stakes relationships. Often it’s just exchanging pleasantries when you see another regular at the dog park (put your phone down and make eye contact!) or seeking them out for connection on social media.

Belonging to a family is not the same as belonging to a community. The therapy world has assumed that social ties outside of the home are a function of social ties within the home. Ergo, there is nothing different or special about the two. This suggests that family ties provide meaning to your life and that business relationships compromise the meaning of your life. 

And yet, you are not bound to your friends by blood. With friendship, behavior counts. With family ties, blood counts. We will tolerate far more bad behavior from our parents and siblings than we would in our friends or associates or acquaintances. In fact, the latter is the best proving ground for ethical behavior. If you behave badly with an acquaintance you will more quickly be voted off the island.

For those who care about such matters Aristotle emphasized the importance of friendship in his Nichomachean Ethics. It should count as a guide to behaving well in society and in the marketplace. It should generally be considered the antidote to the therapy culture emphasis on family romance, family drama, family abuse and the other narratives that describe within the hothouse of family life.

After sharing the research that shows how a friend's presence lowers stress, Parker-Pope continues that friendship is more important to our emotional well being than is romance:

A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends.

In 2006, a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. Notably, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective. Having a spouse wasn’t associated with survival.

In a six-year study of 736 middle-age Swedish men, being attached to a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, but having friendships did. Among risk factors for cardiovascular health, lacking social support was as bad as smoking.

Researcher Dan Buettner has studied the question. Parker-Pope shares his conclusions:

“I argue that the most powerful thing you can do to add healthy years is to curate your immediate social network,” said Mr. Buettner, who advises people to focus on three to five real-world friends rather than distant Facebook friends. “In general you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation,” he said. “You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”

Your family is obliged to be there for you. Your friends less so. Thus, the presence of a friend is considered to be more of an affirmation of your good character.

It does not take very much to form a friendship. One need be open to the interaction, but one should also be capable of making an opening gesture of acceptance.  And one need also not to expect that a friendship will blossom into intimacy. Or that it will necessarily lead to people becoming best friends forever.

Parker-Pope writes:

I’ve never forgotten an exchange with my friend Julie Mason, now host of the Sirius radio program “The Press Pool,” when we were both new reporters at The Houston Chronicle. I stopped by her desk with a question and noticed she was on deadline. “That’s O.K.,” she said, turning around to show me I had her full attention. “I’ve always got five minutes for a friend.” The moment made such an impression on me that I’ve tried to make it my mantra: “I’ve always got five minutes for a friend.” And I’ve also remembered the importance of body language — turning to give them my full attention (and putting down my phone or work) when I see them. While it’s true that some friends are more high-maintenance than others, in general, our friends are more understanding and less demanding than most people in our lives. Don’t avoid friends because you can’t give them hours of your attention. It takes only a few minutes of listening and care to make a connection and reinforce the bonds of friendship. Take five minutes to call or text, and just tell a friend you are thinking about them.

I would remark that Parker-Pope, in the exchange with Mason, opened the conversation by showing consideration for a reporter who was on deadline. Had she barged in and demanded attention she would have instantly undermined the connection.

Cultivating a friendship, she continues, is less about sharing intimacies than developing routines. It could mean having a yearly reunion, a weekly breakfast, a shared shopping trip or exercise class.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, small gestures matter enormously when it comes to sustaining friendships. Parker-Pope writes:

Friends, by definition, typically don’t require the constant attention needed by romantic partners and children. That’s why small gestures that show someone we are thinking about them can go a long way toward nurturing friends who may not always get as much one-on-one time as you'd both prefer.

She lists a number of them: text a photo, offer small gifts, share a news article, show up for milestones, and so on. She is suggesting that sustaining a friendship does not require an enormous effort. The sidelight here is that if you never make such efforts  you look even more derelict than you would if you had been called on to make a larger effort.

Parker-Pope then notes that self-disclosure, sharing secrets is one of the important elements to friendship. I believe as a rule that showing off one’s vulnerability counts far more when women are friends with women than when men are friends with men. 

For the most part friendship requires trust and confidence. You need to trust your friend. You need to know you can rely on your friend. You need to know that your friend possesses good character and integrity. One might say that exchanging confidences is a sign of a developing friendship. One might add that its power to join people lies less in the enhanced feeling of empathy and more in the sense that you can trust the person to keep a secret.


whitney said...

This is another area that has been impacted negatively by feminism. Women are very threatened by male friendships and want to get into them and disrupt them. Are male spaces even allowed anymore? Also women are always talking about how their partner/boyfriend/husband is their best friend. That's not good for anyone

Anonymous said...

Sounds exactly like a typical extrovert telling introverts they "should" get out more. We're all unique -- some of us find it this case, my husband IS my best friend...and not to be cliched,' but I'd rather be with him, the cats, my books, and a laptop than most people I know...

I don't believe having "10 or more friends" would suit an introvert at all!