Social Interaction//

The Science — And Art — of Friendship

Why you should cherish meaning over pleasure and utility


I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately. As I recently wrote for New York Magazine, so many of the digital devices that supposedly connect us are leaving many of us, myself included, feeling a bit lonely. Yes, it’s true that email, text messaging, and social media can be enjoyable and beneficial, and that they can spawn wonderful relationships. But although they may offer the illusion of doing so, online relationships simply cannot replace real, live, in-person connection. There’s just something special and irreplaceable about being physically present with another human being. And no, there’s not — and I can’t imagine there ever will be — an app for that.

The scientific literature offers plenty of insight on what close friends do for us. They give us confidence and bolster our sense of self, especially during tough times. They increase our sense of purpose and belonging. And they significantly influence some of our most important behaviors. Studies have found that if you have a friend who becomes obese you are 57 percent more likely to become obese; if you have a friend who quits smoking you become 36 percent less likely to start lighting up. The flip side of this is also true: when your friends adopt healthy behaviors, like regular exercise, you become much more likely to do the same. In other words, the people with whom you surround yourself have an enormous impact on your life. In many ways, they shape it.

But when it comes to what — or perhaps more accurately, who — makes a good friend, the scientific literature is sparser. Simply being in the flesh with someone does not make a lasting, meaningful relationship. Which got me thinking: what, exactly, does?

The people with whom you surround yourself have an enormous impact on your life. In many ways, they shape it.

My search to answer this question took me back in time more than 2,000 years to the ancient Greek Empire; specifically, to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, a volume that many scholars say represents some of the philosopher’s most refined thinking. What I found couldn’t be more insightful, and it rings just as true today as it must have then.

Aristotle writes that there are three different kinds of friendship:

1) Friendships based on utility, in which one or both of the parties gain something as a result of the friendship (think: much of the modern “networking” enterprise, or becoming friends with someone because you think they can help you).

2) Friendships based on pleasure, or those centered around pleasant experiences (think: people with whom you can have a good, carefree time).

3) Friendships based on virtue, in which both individuals share the same values (think: people whom you admire and respect, and with whom you align on what you find most important in life).

It’s fascinating that, centuries ago, Aristotle offered that many individuals “who are young or in their prime” too often pursue friendships predominantly for utility only to come up wanting. Spend some time on a college campus or in the corporate workplace, and it’s easy to see that some things never change.

Likewise, he wrote, “Those who love because of utility love because of what is good for themselves, and those who love because of pleasure do so because of what is pleasant to themselves.” Yet what one finds useful or pleasurable, Aristotle wrote, “is not permanent but is always changing; thus, when the reason for the friendship is done away, the friendship is dissolved.”

There’s something irreplaceable about being physically present with another human being. And no, there’s not — and I can’t imagine there ever will be — an app for that.

While all three of Aristotle’s friendships can be advantageous, only those founded in virtue — and with common core values — are enduring and meaningful: “Perfect friendship is the friendship of [those] who are alike in virtue,” he wrote. “For these [individuals] wish well to each other [in all circumstances] and thus [these friendships] are good in themselves.”

Yes, these kinds of relationships demand lots of effort and are hard to come by — “great friendships can only be felt toward a few people,” Aristotle wrote — but they yield a wonderful sense of satisfaction and contentment. It is a rare blessing to connect with someone on this deeper level.

Aristotle’s schema is not only prescient, it’s also practical. Ask yourself: in which categories do your relationships fall? It’s OK to have some (perhaps even most) friendships mainly for utility and pleasure, but it’s important to realize that these fill a different purpose and are likely to have a shorter lifespan than the ultimate kind of friendship — one built upon shared virtue. And it is these latter friendships that are worth protecting and cherishing. They don’t emerge overnight, and they require considerable energy to maintain — as Aristotle wrote, “lack of conversation has broken many a friendship” — but what you get out of these friendships easily outweighs what you put in.

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