The notion of friendship has changed radically in an age when we not only have hundreds of friends on social media but we can also ldquo;unfriendrdquo; anybody with just one swipe or a tap on our smartphone. With the advent of social media the word ldquo;friendrdquo; has turned into a verb and friendship seems to have lost its original meaning as one of life’s greatest gifts. The kind of friendship that we so easily and often indiscriminately forge with numerous individuals on social media is a concern for many because it undermines the deep special authentic bond of genuine friendship which plays a vital role in our physical mental and emotional well-being.
None of us would ever want to live without friends according to Aristotle even if we had every other good in the world. Robert Burton’s tribute to friendship is fairly typical:
ldquo;As the sun is to the firmament so is friendship to the worldrdquo;
a most divine and heavenly band. As nuptial love makes this perfects
mankind and is to be preferred ... Take this away and take all pleasure
joy comfort happiness and true content out of this world; rsquo;tis the
greatest tie the surest indenture strongest band ... A faithful friend is
better than gold a medicine of misery an only possession.rdquo;
And so is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s:
ldquo;O friend my bosom said
Through thee alone the sky is arched
Through thee alone the rose is red
All things through thee take nobler form
And look beyond the earth.rdquo;
Experts who have researched and written on friendship unanimously agree that defining the nature of friendship is a daunting task. In his latest book On Friendship Alexander Nehamas has tried to explain the true nature of friendship. According to Nehamas we simply cannot treat our friends as a means to an end. We are not in a genuine friendship when our goal is to obtain some kind of a benefit either material or otherwise. For Nehamas genuine friendships are like beauty or art which kindle something profound within us and is appreciated for its own sake.
Aristotle’s ideas about philia which is considered to be an equivalent of friendship have had a profound influence on our understanding of the nature of friendship. In Aristotle’s notion of friendship it stands for a flawless kind of love that brings out the best in us. Friendship makes our lives much more enriching and without it our life has no significant meaning. According to Aristotle there are three major characteristics that are present in genuine friendships: love or affection reciprocity and mutual goodwill. In fact in wishing good things for our friends and vice versa we form the most important feature of an Aristotelian notion of friendship.
The famous French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne published his first volume of Essays in 1850 where he wrote about a spiritual kind of a perspective on friendship which is quite radical even by contemporary standards. In describing his deep intimate friendship with Eacute;tienne de La Boeacute;tie Montaigne tells us that his soul merged with his friend’s and they became so intertwined that they even ceased being two:
ldquo;I know his soul as well as mine ... Everything actually
being in common between usndash; wills thoughts judgments goods
wives children honor and life ndash; and our relationship being that
of one soul in two bodies according to Aristotle’s very apt definition
we can neither lend nor give anything to each other.rdquo;
Contemporary experts on friendship point out that genuine friendships involve spending quality time in each other’s company trying to understand and appreciate one another unconditionally which seems to have become a lost art in an age of texts and tweets. Good friends also engage in a high level of self-disclosure and are ready and willing to come to each other’s aid when the situation demands it. These experts also inform us that mutuality in friendships is a critically important ingredient. Recent research indicates that most of our friendships are lacking in mutuality which means that someone we regard as a friend may not share the same feelings about us. Or vice versa someone we think we hardly know may regard us as herhis best friend. Research findings also show that it is not only disconcerting but also quite damaging for our self-concept to find out that people whom we think as our friends are actually not so.
Since we have limited time we can only have a limited number of friends according to the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. He believes that friendship involves layers in which the top layer consists of one or two individuals who happen to be our best friends and with whom we interact on a daily basis. In the next layer there can be about four people we interact with periodically sharing affection affinity and concern. The rest are in the layers at the bottom where we spend less time and have a less meaningful connection. When we donrsquo;t meet with these individuals regularly they soon fall into the category of an acquaintance. It is quite possible that we are friendly with them but they arenrsquo;t our genuine friends - they are just acquaintances at best. According to Dunbar we can invest only so much in terms of time and emotional energy. So we may be able to handle only five slots for the most profound type of friendships.
Dunbar argues that when people say that they have more than five friends they are not in genuine friendships. So for Dunbar having hundreds of friends on social media as many of us do these days is not friendship at all. He also points out that genuine friendship demands that we become vulnerable with each other by disclosing things about ourselves that people donrsquo;t usually post on social media.
Aristotle considered friendship either itself a virtue or a relationship that was confined to the virtuous. Cicero followed Aristotle almost to the letter: ldquo;Without virtue he wrote ldquo;friendship cannot exist at all.rdquo; By relying on our friendsrsquo; circle on social media we tend to forget the enormous benefits that genuine friendships offer. Nehamas reminds us that real friendships unlike friendships on social media provide:
ldquo;Depth and color to life; the loyalty it inspires erodes the barriers
of selfishness. It 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 effortsrdquo; and much more.
In contemporary times many of us seem to be reticent about self-disclosure which is a sine qua non in genuine friendships. Instead we often opt for the safe space of social media where we engage in a relationship without having any intimate connection reciprocity and self-disclosure. So many of us are looking for friendships without risk for pleasure without significant investment. Many of us seem to be so fearful of the pain and disappointment of failed friendships that we are willing to forgo the possibilities of love and joy that genuine friendships offer.
According to medical experts engaging in shallow unfulfilling and nonreciprocal relationships as is the case with social media has detrimental effects on our physical well-being. The feelings of loneliness and isolation that often accompany us when we are communicating with others on social media as opposed to direct one-on-one conversations increase the risk of death as much as smoking drinking and obesity.
Neurologists have also found that an over-reliance on superficial impersonal non-reciprocal relationships is highly likely to damage the tone or function of our smart vagus nerve which enables us to feel comfortable and confident in face-to-face interactions with others. It allows us to feel all right about showing our vulnerabilities and stay focused in times of conflict. When we are lacking in authentic friendships that are based on reciprocity our smart vagus nerve lies dormant which makes us feel anxious and stressed about making abiding deep connections with others.
It’s probably not a bad idea to identify who our real friends are among all the people we encounter in our daily lives. We may want to know who will gladly make the time for us when we need their company. Which folks enliven and enrich us? Who will accept us unconditionally? Who will be ready to come to our help when we need it? Who will miss us? Who would we miss? While it is true that there is no consensus on the definition and nature of friendships real friendships help shape and create new dimensions through which to experience the world around us. This can be for better or for worse depending on who our friends are. As the saying goes ldquo;Show me your friends and Irsquo;ll show you who you are.rdquo;
The writer is professor of communication studies Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles
Aristotle’s ideas about philia, which is considered to be an equivalent of friendship, have had a profound influence on our understanding of the nature of friendship.