The Role of Friendship in Our Lives

In life, through different stages, I have had a lot of friends. Some I have considered close, some as mere acquaintances and some for purely entertainment value. Over the years, some friendships have grown deeper and stronger while others have drifted away over the duress of time and evolving personalities. However, the older I get, the more I realize the value of friends and deep, meaningful social connections. Over the last few weeks, there have been a lot of instances where I have really mulled over the meaning of friendship, the role it plays in our lives and how to do it better or make new friends at any age. As usual, such musings find a convenient outlet in a blog post.

What is friendship?

Going by my habit, when faced with an intriguing question or thought I turned to Google. But when I tried to get a definition of friendship, in some ways my mind pretty much rejected all the options it threw up. They all seemed pretty cold and lifeless.

Sample this – “a relationship between friends” or “Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between people”.

When I think of friendship, I think of relationships which sustain over time. I think of people in front of whom you drop all your inhibitions. It is the bonds which can be realigned and threads picked up even after years of incommunicado.

Am I making sense? Probably not. Because in some ways, friendship is this inexplicable connection that you feel with a person and if you nodded to any of the statements above, you know what I mean.

Aristotle on friendship

While I might have come across as a bumbling mess in the section above, Aristotle, even in the centuries past seems to have made sense of the concept of friendship much better. One of his most well-known quotes in this regard is:

In poverty as well as in other misfortunes, people suppose that friends are their only refuge. And friendship is a help to the young, in saving them from error, just as it is also to the old, with a view to the care they require and their diminished capacity for action stemming from their weakness; it is a help also to those in their prime in performing noble actions, for ‘two going together’ are better able to think and to act.

-Aristotle on Friendship

For someone who was able to articulate friendship so well, he also neatly categorized them into three boxes. As per him, there are two types of friends which are accidental while the third type is the one that is carefully cultivated.

Friendship of utility

This relationship is purely transactional where both people are pretty much aware that they are in it simply because the other person might be useful some time. A lot of the networking with polite small talk can be looked at through this lens.

Friendship of pleasure

Yeah, I find this name misleading too. But, essentially Aristotle mentions this as a friendship which is formed out of shared experiences with a life span of that experience per se. Think of the number of colleagues in a job that you probably thought of as friends and the main thread of connection was mostly office gossip. Once you switch jobs, most of those “friendships” don’t really survive. I was lucky in my first job, being a small company, to have sustained quite a few friends even after 5.5 years after leaving the job. From each of the other jobs or roles, it’s mostly been one or two friendships which have survived.

Real friendship

This to Aristotle is the real deal which is based on mutual respect and appreciation of each other’s traits. These are the types of friends that last you years and sometimes a lifetime. Note that these friendships may not often be a smooth linear line and often have bumps on the way. But, these are the relationships worth working on and cultivating which mean something deeper.

While I agree with most of what Aristotle talks about in these three categories, I also think that these categories are fungible. Often, real friendships lead to getting true benefits in life or even enhancing a shared experience. On the other hand, a lot of real friendships could also start as a networking relationship or emerge out of shared experiences. To me, there is no hard and fast rule here except that truly sustainable friendships really do depend on mutual affection, respect and appreciation for each other as a person.

Gender differences in friendship

Conventional wisdom has it that women form far deeper, highly emotional bonds whereas most men bond over superficial things like beer and entertainment. On the other side of the coin, women also fight more viciously considering how deeply they are entrenched in the friendship whereas men find it easier to forgive or forget since the emotions are not as strongly in play anyway.

While there are a few exceptions to what I have described above, there are quite some people out there who agree and are sounding out warning signals about it. As this Psychology Today article puts it, women invest more in their friendship whereas friendship among men tends to remain more instrumental.  Harpers Bazaar talks about how men have been conditioned not to talk emotions and women end up paying the price of being the only emotion outlet for them, which also shows in the difference of the friendships the two genders cultivate and maintain. This article also mentions an interesting term – “emotional gold digger”, for someone who depends completely on another person for their emotional needs.

Importance of friendship

Being a woman myself, when I say friends are important, I am probably saying it from the female lens. However, over the years, these are some of the benefits I have reaped from my friendships:

Emotional Support

This has to be my biggest reason for why I love my friends, especially the closest ones. I have had some emotionally trying times. While I am blessed with a hugely supportive and understanding family, being able to pick up the phone and vent to a friend has a very calming effect on me. The best part is how my friendship with a few closest friends has become pretty intuitive where without my knowledge of its need, I get their emotional support.

No Inhibitions

We all wear different masks in different settings and very few places or people allow you to feel comfortable enough to put that guard down. Friends are people who have seen you at your best and at your worst and everything in between. When you can be yourself with someone, you know you got yourself a friend.

Advice

Even seen those newspaper columns where people ask experts for advice on life matters? I prefer doing that with friends. My closest friends have either known me for years or seen me at close quarters and vice versa. So, I know whom can I trust with what matters, knowing that they will also have a better idea of what works for me as a person.

Entertainment

I place a lot of importance on a sense of humor and it ends up becoming a common thread within my friend circle as well. So, generally, catching up with friends becomes a time of laughter and fun. Yes, stand up comedy or TV shows can give you a similar result, but with friends it’s different. The social connection is something we humans can always do with.

Longevity & happiness

As this article and many others point out on the basis of research, there is evidence to show that people with close friends IRL (In Real Life) are happier and tend to live longer with fewer or no close friends to count on. To me, it links back to the bit about emotional support. When you have non-judgemental outlets for deep emotions, you are bound to be happier and healthier too.

How to make more friends

Before I go any further, let me start with a disclaimer that I am no expert at this and neither am I putting out these points as a boastful claim of making friends easily or any such thing. However, increasingly I have tried to notice how I behave and compare it to other people around to see if there is anything different in the two approaches. So, here are three things I believe work well to interact with people as social connections or acquaintances to test waters and then work on the possibility or potential of it turning into a deeper friendship.

Be open

In this increasingly polarized world, where most of us like to inhabit our personal echo chambers, it is easier to retreat into viewing people as X or Y and make snap judgments. I think it’s important to approach people and the world in general with an open mindset and see what comes. Does the person have a political orientation different than yours? Does that matter? Are you uncomfortable with the person’s food choices? Does that matter? Fret about only things that really make a difference to the quality of your interactions rather than each and every nitty gritty little annoyances.

Be curious

Most of us love to talk about our lives and our experiences. However, active listening helps not just sales professionals but also in our personal lives. Listen to the person and ask open-ended supplemental questions. For instance, when one of my friends tells me about a holiday, my go-to question is what was your favorite experience? For a lot of them, it gets them thinking but most of the answers end up adding things to my own travel list. On almost any topic, if you listen well enough, you will find enough questions to ask that will aid in forming a deeper connection.

Don’t keep score

Whenever I go home to Delhi, I make plans to meet friends beforehand and grandly announce them to my folks as soon as I meet them. My mother has this habit of poking me to say – Are you sure you are meeting X? Did she not cancel last minute earlier? Isn’t he always late and then you end up waiting? I generally listen patiently (or not so patiently) and end up telling her it really doesn’t matter and if I am still getting to meet that person in this short time, I will. The point is everyone is busy and to take out time for friends, it means taking out time from other commitments. Respect it when they do and be kind on yourself when you are unable to do that. Just don’t keep score. I used to do it a lot when it came to phone calls with friends, as to how the other person never calls. Today, I like to think I do better on that front and just appreciate the friendship for what it is without unspoken expectations or code of conduct.

Those were some of my thoughts on something very close to my heart – friends and their role in our lives. Do you have friends you can count on? What is your take on friendship? Let me know in the comments below.

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