According to a May 2021 survey, Americans report having fewer close friendships than they did 30 years ago. When we consider how much of our time is accounted for by our career, family, health (e.g., exercise), and romantic partner, it’s not shocking that friendship might find itself on the back burner. But according to a recent conversation I had with author and social scientist Arthur Brooks, friendship is one of the key factors in finding and maintaining happiness as we age.
Finding happiness through friendship is not simply a matter of giving the title of “friend” to a certain quantity of people. It’s easy to be “friends” with the person who trades picking up your kids from school, keeps a stash of snacks in their desk drawer at work, or introduces you to valuable business contacts. You might like and care about this person well enough and even exchange superficial details about your lives, but the undercurrent of the relationship is based on this person’s utility to you (and presumably your utility to them).
Do you have “real” friends or “deal” friends?
These friendships are what Brooks terms “deal” friends, although the concept of an expedient friend is hardly new. The lowest level of Aristotle’s proposed friendship hierarchy is utilitarian friendships: the relationships that have the least emotional connection and primarily serve the purpose of helping us achieve our goals. This type of friendship may bring some temporary enjoyment from spending time together, but it doesn’t tend to bring lasting joy to your life. According to Brooks:
“We all have toxic relationships that can be profitable for us (“deal friendships”), but they don’t uplift us.”
In contrast, at the highest rung of the Aristotelian hierarchy is “perfect friendship,” defined only by mutually valuing the other’s existence. In perfect friendship, you may have a shared passion for something like music, mountain biking, or fostering shelter dogs – in other words, endeavors completely unrelated to careers, money, and success. We are happiest when we have at least a couple of these “real” friends, and ideally, these friends should not be related to you. In Brooks’ framework for happiness, family is distinct from friends, as any inherent familial sense of obligation would negate the idea that friendship exists purely on the basis of enjoying each other’s company.
Quality over quantity
If, while reflecting on your own friends, you’re realizing that more of your time is spent on your “deal” friends, you’re not alone. Over the course of our lifetime, we accumulate superficial relationships that may leave us feeling less than fulfilled, analogous to our accumulation of material possessions. However, while you may be able to buy a bigger house to accommodate a growing number of material possessions, in relationships we have a finite amount of time which can’t be expanded beyond 24 hours in a day. This unfortunately means that having more real friends isn’t just a matter of increasing our overall pool of social connections, as any time spent on “deal” friends comes at the cost of time spent developing real friends. In other words, our time devoted to friendship is something of a zero-sum game. We likely need to give up some of the “deal” friends to make time for more meaningful relationships.
In the same way that cleaning out our closets and junk drawers might make us feel less weighed down by our belongings, so too can prioritizing our most meaningful relationships. Brooks advocates for close friends, specifically weeding out the relationships that are transactional, so that we can make more time for the people who bring out the best in us.
“Are people making you better or are they making you morally a little bit worse, but maybe kind of instrumentally useful to you?… After a certain point in your life, you need to be lighter in those relationships so you can have relationships that truly make you into a better person.”
When a person has been in your life for a long time, it can be difficult to know how that friendship contributes to your overall happiness. The litmus test for friendship comes down to how you feel about yourself while in the presence of the other person.
“When you’re around a person, do you admire yourself more or less? Do you say things that are not quite you? Are you not quite living up to your own values? Maybe it’s a joke. Maybe it’s the interests of the other person. Do you act more materialistic than you are? Do you act more callous than you are? Do you put up with jokes at the expense of other people that you ordinarily wouldn’t and that you shouldn’t?”
The need to constantly morph yourself like a chameleon depending upon who is present can be exhausting and create internal discordance. Around our best friends, we can relax and simply be ourselves. That doesn’t mean that every moment together needs to be happy and joyous, but these are the relationships that are strong enough to weather difficult conversations, disagreements, and mistakes.
It takes time to create something great
If, in your current circumstances you can only name “deal” friends, don’t panic – just know that this area of your life will need some dedicated time and effort. Close friendships won’t appear out of nowhere; some studies estimate that it takes at least 94 hours to go from being an acquaintance to a friend. The closeness of the relationship trends with time spent together and the categorization of being best friends only materializes after spending about 300 hours together.
The caveat? The type of time together matters. Spending time together at work negatively predicted closeness – an unsurprising finding since “perfect friendship” needs to exist outside of our jobs and ambitions. True friendship is better cultivated by spending our leisure time together on a shared interest.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in having utilitarian friends. “Deal” friends can be mutually beneficial relationships. But it is important to distinguish these relationships from our “real” friends, so that we can make a conscious choice for how we spend our limited time. Letting go of some of our “deal friends,” means having more time to spend on more meaningful friendships, the people whose presence makes us into the best version of ourselves. The company of close friends is what provides necessary social support through life’s inevitable ups and downs. Like so many other aspects of a healthy life, forming and maintaining “real” friendships takes time, but the investment is well-spent – our happiness depends on it.
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