Hibernation over! Friends reunited at last
Is friendship our most basic human need? Friends have survived three long months of separation under strict lockdown rules. Now we can meet again, will we appreciate our friendships more?
Yesterday, the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief as Boris Johnson announced the end of a “long national hibernation”. “The bustle is coming back,” he said.
From 4 July, social distancing guidelines in England will be eased, restaurants and cafes will re-open and, for the first time in three months, many will be able to spend quality time with friends.
All over the world, if lockdown has taught us anything, it is how much we need friendship.
Life under quarantine has been about maintaining physiological needs of food and shelter, at the expense of our social need for a close circle of friends. Some have rediscovered the joy of neighbourhood friendships – but most of us are longing to see our closest friends again.
Social scientists take this very seriously. “Your wellbeing, happiness, your physical and mental health, even your risk of dying are all affected by the number of close friends that you have,” says evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar.
Research shows friendship is as important to your health as diet and exercise, and can even boost your immune system.
Dunbar suggests we need between three and five close friends. But what makes the perfect friendship? A major study at Cardiff University found that the most important characteristic is a good sense of humour. Life can be far too stressful without someone with whom you can share a joke.
Laughter has always been an essential part of social bonding, but it’s not the full story. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said the purest friend is one who values you for who you are, and not what you can do for them.
This friendship is about empathy and being understood. He thought this was a very rare and special bond, not to be confused with mere acquaintances, colleagues, and classmates.
Ever since Aristotle, humans have distinguished between true and fake friends. We’re suspicious of ulterior motives and feel uncomfortable that friendship may have a purpose beyond the pleasure of each other’s company. We have developed a sophisticated and ever-changing language to describe the complexity of friendship, from bromance to frenemies and the friendzone.
But some say we should be more honest about our basic need for friendship. Western culture celebrates the individual, but we can only achieve so much on our own. Working together towards shared goals not only helps us do more, but also makes for deeper and more meaningful relationships.
Dunbar’s research into friendship reveals it is not just shared goals and values that bind us together.
Touch and face-to-face contact releases pleasure hormones in a way that interactions on social media cannot replicate. And, without renewing these interactions, he warns that these special bonds slowly begin to “decay”. Which makes it all the more important for us to enjoy our rediscovered freedom and meet up with our friends as soon as possible.
Is friendship our most basic human need?
The greatest love
Yes. Friendship is fundamental. We need friends to make us laugh when we feel low, talk through our problems when we are confused, and to give us a sense of social belonging and meaning. Without friendship, loneliness can seriously affect our health. With friends, we live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
No. Friendship is obviously not a basic human need like food and water. Throughout history, many spiritual people have actively chosen solitude and found a deeper sense of belonging away from human contact. Many others have no friends at all, and are perfectly happy with family and colleagues at work. Friends are over-rated!
- What is the most important quality in a friend?
- Can you be real friends with someone you have never met in person?
- Draw a picture of you with one of your best friends, showing what makes your friendship special.
- Write a thank you letter to a friend who was there for you when you needed it most. (You don’t have to send it to them –but do if you want them to see it.)
Some People Say...
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”Aristotle (384-322BC), Greek philosopher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that humans are social animals. On our own, we would not survive very long in the wild. For all of human history, we have lived in groups that extend beyond our immediate family and we evolved specific social skills – laughter, eye-contact, speech, and play – in order to build relationships in large groups.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around when these relationships deserve to be called friendship. Do we aspire to be like Aristotle and strive for an ideal, perfect kind of selfless friendship between two independent individuals? Or do we accept that all our actions are selfish, and friendship is a complex transaction between two people who depend on one another?
- The US psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) devised Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to help us think about how we prioritise life decisions. He saw finding food, water, and shelter as the most important, followed by safety and security, then friendship and, finally, prestige and creative expression.
- Research shows that hanging out with the people next door can be beneficial. Unlike school friends, neighbourhood-based friendship groups include mixed ages and older teenagers act as role models and mentors for younger children.
- Major study
- Researchers asked students aged between 10 and 17 to choose the three more important qualities in a friend. After a good sense of humour (82%), students picked honesty (67%) and kindness (61%) as essential characteristics.
- Many animals laugh during play, but humans have developed the ability to imitate laughter as well as tell the difference between real and fake laughter. Scientists believe we have evolved these skills to distinguish between friends and strangers.
- Very rare
- But not as rare as it was for Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). This French philosopher wrote a famous essay about his friendship with Etienne de Boëtie. His feelings were so perfect and pure, he doubted they existed more than once every few centuries!
- Ulterior motives
- One of the most successful books of all time is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1922-1955). Carnegie showed how we can change people’s behaviour towards us by mimicking friendly behaviour.
- From 1990s skater culture to Hollywood comedy films, the intimate, non-sexual friendship between two men is, in fact, part of a much older tradition. Medieval male friends took vows of fidelity similar to marriage rituals, and the first friendship in Western literature between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad was perhaps the first bromance.
- The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), wrote that often “friend and enemy have coincided in the same person”. But this term describing a love-hate relationship based on rivalry and mutual dislike was probably popularised by the sitcom Sex and the City (1997-2004).
- First used in a 1994 episode of Friends, this term refers to a friendship where the unrequited love of one friend is met by the platonic affection of the other.