‘Do we really need friends?’ asks US novelist

There for you: From 1994 to 2004, Friends got between 20–25 million US viewers each episode.

Studies say friends make us healthier, happier, and less stressed. But in a recent article, author Richard Ford said he was “suspicious” of people with lots of friends. Are they overrated?

Something “just doesn’t smell right about friendship”, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford in The Guardian last month. He recalled a recent conversation, when he was asked who his closest friend was, and replied that he did not know.

“This seemed to alarm the person,” he wrote, as if “something was wrong with me.” He has friends, he reassured them, although “not many”. He is “suspicious of people who have a lot of friends.” Why? He admits to the reader that he does not know.

He presents a few theories: maybe he did not have many good models of friendship in his youth. Maybe he is not very likeable. Maybe it has something to do with Trump. (“Maybe everything does.”)

In the end, he concludes that he is simply not sure what friendship actually is. He does not particularly trust people, he says, or believe that anyone should be more special than anyone else. “I’m all for human intimacy, but can’t I just like the world in general?”

Friendship — in the form of strong social bonds — is as old as humanity itself. It may even have helped us to evolve, according to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, whose studies have found that people and primates with larger social groups tend to have larger brains. After all, it was the ability to work with others and pass on knowledge that has allowed humans to survive and grow.

There are also numerous studies which show the benefits of friendship to individuals. Just last month, researchers found that our closest friends help us to build resilience during stressful periods. Several surveys have found that strong friendships make people happy. Meanwhile, doing activities with friends — like singing, dancing or jogging — appears to release endorphins and boost the immune system. In other words, hanging out with your mates can literally help you fight off a cold.

But studies also show that people have fewer friends as they get older. Our closest friends often begin to marry, have children, or move away. At around the age of 25, we begin to lose more friends each year than we make.

Friendship is magic

Perhaps Ford’s comments are not so shocking, say some. He is in his 70s, he has been married for almost 50 years, and he has a successful career doing a job that many can only dream of. He does not particularly need great friends any more. Others do. It all depends on your circumstances.

How tragic, respond others. Friendship is not nearly as complicated as Ford seems to think; it is just about enjoying spending time with someone, and being there for them in times of need. This is one of the simplest, most important pleasures of life. What is the point of being successful if there’s no one to share it with?

You Decide

  1. Is friendship overrated?
  2. “You can tell the nature of a man from his companion,” said the painter Odilon Redon. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. List five key things that you think humans need to be happy, in order of importance. Does friendship make the list?
  2. Read Richard Ford’s full article, “Who needs friends?”, found under Become An Expert. Then write a response, giving your own answer to this question.

Some People Say...

“Instead of a friend, become not an enemy.”

Ecclesiasticus

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to Robin Dubner’s research, there is a limit to the number of friendships humans can maintain at once. It goes like this: two special friends, five intimate friends, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, 150 friends, and 500 acquaintances. This can fluctuate based on the individual, he says, but roughly correlates with data from Facebook and mobile phones. Other studies have pointed towards the positive influence of relationships on our overall wellbeing.
What do we not know?
Exactly what makes these relationships so important, or why they have this impact on our health. We also do not know whether friendships are more important than, for example, family or romantic relationships. Meanwhile, Richard Ford argues that we do not even know what friendship is.

Word Watch

Richard Ford
The author has written several novels and short stories since the mid-1970s — including Independence Day, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1995. He has been compared to great American novelists like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Updike.
Larger brains
According to Dunbar this is true of both species (Macaque monkeys have larger brains and larger social groups than Tamarin monkeys) and individuals. The size of a person’s social network is related to the size of their orbital prefrontal cortex.
Resilience
According to a study by Dr Rebecca Graber from the University of Brighton, using 185 adults over a year long period.
Surveys
For example, The Grant Study followed 268 American men for 75 years. It found that the best prediction of whether someone would be alive and happy aged 80 was whether they had someone they could call to talk to about their troubles at 4am.
Endorphins
A hormone which helps to boost the immune system.
25
According to a study by Aalto University in Finland and the Oxford University, which studied data from 3m mobile phone users.

Subjects

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