Aristotle described the ideal friendship as one in which reciprocation and respect for each other’s well-being serve a common good. Based on a mutual understanding of virtue and unshakeable in good times or bad, it may serve a useful purpose or make us feel good, but neither pleasure nor utility are its primary purpose. Rather, it is friendship for friendship’s sake with someone so intimate as to function as our “other self.” It is quite simply the gold standard of human relationships.
If we’re lucky, we have a handful of such friends at any given time in our lives. It doesn’t matter whether they are lifelong or relatively new. It’s their unique qualities that make them irreplaceable. Writer C. S. Lewis is alleged to have captured the birth of true friendship as “the moment when one person says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.’”
Analyzing friendship may seem like an exercise in redundancy, given that we’ve been familiar with the concept since the age of 3. As early as 6, we learn to separate our own identity from others. Empathy follows. By the time we grasp that communities are made up of interconnected networks of friends, we have enough life experience to know that friends are valuable. Any third-grader can tell you that it feels good to have friends.
In fact, there is a generally accepted scientific correlation between friendship and happiness. Psychologists might prefer “subjective well-being” to happiness, but it’s a fine point. Both the Harvard Adult Development Survey and Nurses Health Study, backed by generations of gender-specific research, have concluded that we humans are more likely to achieve octogenarian status with good health and increased life satisfaction if we have not only quality friendships but more of them.
How Many are Enough?
There’s a formula for pretty much everything, and the one that calculates human capacity for friendship provides us with the Dunbar numbers, so named after a University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist. Based on things like brain size and primate behavior in socially complex societies, it puts the number of casual friends we can effectively maintain at about 150. Following sort of a “rule of three,” Dunbar posits that we can cope with 50 or so dinner-party-level insiders, 15 confidants, and only five Aristotelian “paradigm”-type intimates at any given time.
Putting aside a newish social media variable that allegedly allows users to put a name to the face of as many as 1,500 acquaintances, the 150/50/15/5 rule has been relatively stable from hunter-gather times. Research suggests that military and corporate structures throughout history have relied on similarly sized, eminently manageable divisions.
The key to this cognitive efficiency is shared experience gained from face-to-face activity, which could be why the numbers don’t actually move much for users of virtual networks. Recent studies show that Twitter users maintain an average of 100–200 stable connections over six months. A Michigan State University survey of undergraduates on Facebook reported a median number of 300 Facebook friends per respondent, only 75 of which were considered to be “actual” friends.
The Inner Circle
Friends are not only important to us as individuals, they comprise networks that hold entire societies together. When the Industrial Revolution concentrated populations of workers around factories, those workers and their families became close-knit due to simple proximity. Frequent interactions, both planned and unplanned, helped build trust as more people shared concerns and confidences with each other. Time spent together in taverns, union meetings, clubs, and church activities provide obvious examples.
Technological and economic upheaval in recent decades altered that interaction and accelerated social change. In the 1990s particularly, sitcoms and movies struck a nerve depicting what sociologists had been saying for a while — that social intimacies formerly ascribed to family relationships were increasingly the domain of an inner-circle of friends.
The more recent proliferation of “how-to-make-friends” media content indicates that we crave much more than passive, vicarious experience. We want, and apparently need, a lot of help with real-world friendships. Today, Internet sites abound with advice variously nuanced for introverts, singles, people with high IQs, older adults, and college students. Judging by the intended audience for that content, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the most friend-challenged cohort of all may be the first generation to have come of age in the new millennium. For them, the social, economic, and technological ground has been shifting for the entire 18–35 years they’ve been alive.
If hand-held technology has pressed “friend” into greater use as a verb, it hasn’t done much for its conventional definition. Pew Research Center surveys in 2014 and 2016 revealed that while 72 percent of all teens spend time with friends online, only 20 percent have ever met an online friend in person. Not that respondents see that as a problem. Relationships based on eSports and gaming (boys) and social media (girls) are a new normal only if one has something else to compare it to.
Real-world organizations that employ people needing social skills are nevertheless paying close attention to the trend. Sensing the interactive challenges faced by young workers, companies like Mortenson Construction in Minneapolis have begun flexing hours to accommodate sports and social activities that help foster friendships across project teams. According to the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Journal, law firms should expect millennials to need more mentoring in the workplace, which turns out to be fine with millennials because they typically want the stability that mentoring helps provide.
But the juxtaposition of friends and family is where real transformation is occurring. While baby boomers tended to hold family in higher esteem than friends, and gen-Xers saw friends and family as a distinction with less of a difference, millennials live in a world where friends equal, if not trump, family. Hence, friends are providing not only the intimacy but also the influence that formerly came from conventional family units.
How We Make Sense of Things
Karla Erickson, associate dean and professor of sociology at Grinnell, is conducting research on how college graduates from 2000–2015 “build selves,” which is to say how they make sense of success, failure, opportunities, and choices in their first steps out of college. Her study deals with their experiences in uncertain social and economic times in relation to the workplace. Erickson says she’s been surprised at how often themes of friendship emerged.
“The friendship thing just kind of popped up out of nowhere. I wasn’t even looking for it,” Erickson says. Her first clue was not so much in what respondents said, but in the way they said it.
“People were using a ‘we’ voice, and often it turned out that the ‘we’ were friendship groups based in college,” Erickson says. “They would say ‘we decided to do something else’ or ‘we decided to move to Boston,’ but the ‘we’ wasn’t always traditional family, a home unit, a child or partner. Sometimes it was four friends.
“I’m starting to think that one of the things that characterizes this generation is the amount of weight and heft that they give to long-term friendships,” Erickson says. “I don’t have enough depth in my data collection yet to say this generation definitely does friendship differently, but I’m comfortable saying that friendship is one of its primary navigational tools.”
A Whole Different “We”
Erickson cites the way her participants think about themselves as workers adjusting to their existing opportunity structure. She says she expected interviewees to refer to the experiences of their parents, grandparents, or neighbors in making sense of their world. But the millennial generation doesn’t seem to use family as a “go-to” frame of reference for employment issues or any other major life event.
“I was really struck by how often turning points weren’t about having a baby or taking care of a parent. They were about friendship,” Erickson says, adding that there also is little or no mention of money or salaries. “They don’t care about the larger economy. The way they make sense of whether they’re doing OK is by what their key good friends — the people they trust — are doing. If they’re OK relative to them, then they’re good.”
Participants typically report no family rupture. They still visit home, and family remains very important to them. Nevertheless, Erickson says, “navigation of failure and success appears completely situated with their friends, not their parents. And that’s a whole different kind of ‘we,’ completely separate from the history of friendship we commonly refer to.”
Erickson’s early interviewees were exclusively Grinnellians, so she’s uncertain about whether what’s emerging is a millennial effect or a Grinnell effect. Either way, she worries that setting such a high bar for friendship may create conditions that can’t be met in other environments.
“What I hear in these interviews,” Erickson says, “is people saying, ‘I’ve never been able to find that intimacy that I had with my friends at Grinnell.’ I hear people making job changes to try to find that community. I hear them doing stuff like taking up a weird hobby, like some kind of drumming circle that they’ve never done before, some kind of specialized knitting. They’re seeking that thing that they had at Grinnell.
“Friendships like that happen here in part because it’s rigorous in the sense of a shared struggle, in the sense that it’s tough to be a Grinnellian, and that the things that we select for in admission matter here — an intensity of personality, that you’re not a conformist, that you’re not trying to be mainstream, that you’re trying to be your own unique self.
“I think of it as part of the heritage of being a Grinnellian that you have this depth of connection with other people,” Erickson says. “It’s a great inheritance of the Grinnell experience, sort of like an alchemy where you are reforged a little bit.”
The capacity to have friendships across gender is yet another positive aspect of the shared Grinnell experience, according to Erickson, especially since cross-gender friendships have been regarded historically as having so many potential pitfalls. “I think it’s lovely, the depth of these friendships,” Erickson says. “And I think it’s a trademark of the school.”
Erickson adds one caveat, and that is that people are likely never again going to have a time when they can stay up until 2 or 2:30 a.m. every night and shoot the breeze. “So if that’s the only way they know how to develop these close affinities,” Erickson says, “it’s going to be hard to replicate.”
Perhaps it’s because friendship seems so intuitive and subjective that intentional conversations about making and keeping friends are rare in the experience of any generation. But it’s a special conundrum for a generation that’s professionally migrational, likes structure more than its predecessors, yet has high demands and higher expectations of everything and everybody — including friends.
“I teach labor classes, and at the end of them I advise graduates to tend their friendships,” Erickson says. “People tend to think they will just take care of themselves. Then two years later they’ve lost touch, and that’s really hard to rebuild.”
The Role of Values
Kelly Guilbeau is assistant director of advising and exploration at the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), whose mission is to empower students to live, learn, and work with meaning and purpose. Guilbeau says that while meaning and purpose are linked with happiness, achieving them requires knowing how to put one’s values into practice.
“The idea of values has been heavily incorporated into our work at the CLS over the past year and a half or so,” Guilbeau says. As of fall 2015, first-year students engage in an informal “values activity” upon arrival. It helps them prioritize what really matters to them in life. “Students end up with their top five values, which we expect to shift as they develop and grow,” Guilbeau says. “When appropriate, we might ask about these values intentionally.”
The values activity is specific to each student, but cumulative results for the class of 2019 show that friendship ranks among the top two values for the entire group. Happiness doesn’t make the top 20 because it’s not a selectable value, but rather a product of other values that produce life satisfaction. “I can’t tell you how many times students say ‘helping others makes me happy,’” Guilbeau says, “so they choose a value of helpfulness.”
Emotional Intelligence = Social Competence
Guilbeau equates intimate knowledge of one’s own values to emotional intelligence — an attribute that gives us both the emotional competency to manage relationships and an overarching social competency for navigating the myriad human circumstances of life and work.
Guilbeau says, “If a student came in and said ‘I’m having trouble with my friends,’ I would begin asking about what matters to them, like ‘What do you need from your relationships in your life? Why does that matter to you? And how can you surround yourself with people that support that?’
“Then it’s an easy comparison to ask ‘How does the group you hang out with support your values? Do your friends or the activities you do with your friends ever conflict with your values?’ If there is a disconnect and action needs to be taken, then the real and often difficult work begins.”
Having a preference for people who are sympathetic with our values doesn’t mean that we can be friends only with those who never challenge our beliefs. In fact, staying grounded in personal values during times of turmoil or anxiety is key to the negotiating process necessary for a friendship to endure.
“I think you’re probably more likely to be a friend with someone who’s wildly different from you if you can practice empathy,” Guilbeau says. “You’re being challenged to think about the world in a different way. There might even be arguments. An authentic friendship, a real friendship, has times where you might have to manage conflict. You might have to step out of your comfort zone and negotiate.”
In the course of such negotiations we may seek to protect or reinforce our own values, but we also gain perspective on what matters most to other people.
“To do all of this requires a lot of emotional intelligence,” Guilbeau says. “I have to know what I’m going to fight for, what’s a deal breaker, and what I’m willing to leave behind. I have to know what matters to me.”
A Simple Approach
Guilbeau, whose background is clinical mental health counseling, says it’s important that we periodically reassess our values since they’re apt to change as we’re exposed to new things and new people and as we learn more about ourselves.
“If we don’t unpack our experiences, we’re right on to the next thing and never really think, ‘What does this mean for me?’ or ‘How did this influence where I’m going next?’” Guilbeau says. “I see my role in the CLS as to infuse that into our conversations and programs so that it becomes a natural part of every experience, that you don’t have an experience without unpacking it.
“All of this is completely transferrable to friendships,” she says. “What I always come back to is knowing what works for you and being able to negotiate it and knowing that it’s possibly going to change over time with every single person that you are friends with.”
So what should we do when we’re alone in a new place and separated from our trusted circle of friends? Guilbeau offers a simple approach: “Put yourself in situations where you might interact with someone,” she says, “After an interaction, come back to yourself and see if you want to interact with that person again. Do they work for you or do they not work for you, based on what matters to you?
“If you can say your intention out loud, then you are practicing self-awareness and allowing yourself to pursue what you need,” Guilbeau says. “At the end of the day, is this potential friend right for you at this point in your life? To me, it’s as simple as that.”
Top Values of the Grinnell Class of 2019
(from the Center for Careers, Life, and Service)