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Why Friendship Is Overrated, A Grown-Up (And Grumpy) Reflection

Friends are the new family! Friendships are the greatest love affairs you'll ever know! Nonsense. Take a journey to the dark side of your so-called friends.

Selfies, side-by-side
Selfies, side-by-side
Peter Praschl


BERLIN — Lovers come and go. But that doesn't really matter as long as you have friends. Friendship, you see, is the most super-wonderful thing in the world. A young colleague with Die Zeit recently wrote a long ode to friendship: "Since more and more young people are freeing themselves from the dictatorship of couplehood, and decide to live alone, friends are not just there to fill the empty hours or function as agony aunts," the piece reads. "Friendship has now been given the chance to become the biggest love affair of your life."

Research suggests the same, albeit in not quite as emotional words. Those who have friends live longer and are more healthy, suffer less from depression, and their thighs don't burn so much when standing with their backs against the wall and performing deep knee-bends — because they can handle pain much better.

All of that is most certainly true, but could it be that we over-interpret these findings in our friendship-induced prudence? Getting a prescription for an anti-depressant and training for a half marathon would surely have the same effect. And that would come without having to listen to your friends complaining about how badly their football team is doing and the obligation to buy them birthday presents.

But the same research that tells you exactly how much your life improves when you go for a walk or have after-work drinks with the same person over years, without ever having experience a simultaneous orgasm with that person, also suggests that friendship has its dark sides. And that these dark sides do not necessarily go hand in hand with our definition of happiness or moral values.

A very sad surprise

You will find yourself looking into the abyss when you start asking yourself who truly counts as your friend. This is the result of a conjoined study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Tel Aviv. According to this study, only 50% of the people you consider as your friends reciprocate that feeling. There has rarely been a psychology study with findings so surprisingly sad. This usually doesn't happen in romantic relationships or marriages. You usually at least know if you are in a relationship or not.

But the worst thing about this study is the fact that it demonstrates how incompetent we actually are in evaluating our social relationships. That may be due to the lack of any sort of binding friendship rituals beyond the age of 16. You cannot just ask the other person if you are friends now. Unless you are on Facebook and everyone knows how much an accepted Facebook friendship invitation is worth: virtually zilch.

And friendships are transient. You quickly become dispensable if the other person moves abroad, starts a new relationship, has a child or decides to adjust their life priorities. You might get the occasional "like" on Facebook, but that's it.

Friendships that resemble the propaganda of the entertainment industry ("How I met your mother," "Girls," etc.) are for young people with a lot of time on their hands and who do not have to wake up early. As soon as you have to earn money, drive the kids to hockey practice and be part of a romantic relationship you are kicked out of the magical fairy dust circle of friendship, despite the fact that you could probably really use some of its benefits. You just don't have the time, and your friends just stop calling.

[rebelmouse-image 27090222 alt="""" original_size="640x434" expand=1]

Those are true friends — Photo: Georgie Pauwels

According to a new study men are more interested in clubs than having one-on-one friendships. They want to have a bit of fun with the lads, vent some steam and do something. Women on the other hand, and this is the just statistical average woman, organize a friendship like a long-term relationship — no sex and no secrets but you are really close to one another.

That is quite nice in itself if it weren't for the dark side. If it weren't for the jealousy that a third of all women feel towards their friends. Or that you think you have found your soulmate because you subconsciously choose to befriend people who are similar to you. They may even be genetically similar to you. A study by Yale University and the University of California determined that your genetic make-up is more similar to people with whom you are friends than it is to that of complete strangers and "corresponds to that of a cousin four times removed." That can lead to a dangerous homogeneity.

You would most certainly benefit from exchanging views with someone who has very different opinions and feelings to your own but you, of course, do not want to be friends with someone like that.

But friendship itself can be dangerous as well. A study conducted by Harvard University has proven that business ventures you undertake together with friends are more likely to fail than when you start a business on your own and with professional contacts. Your decisions are based on your liking your friend rather than on more important factors.

Friendship is blind, after all. But what should be comforting is the fact that the problem is relatively self-contained. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has determined that humans are not able to have more than five profound relationships at any given time — your brain cannot deal with more than that. If one of them is a romantic relationship it is reduced to four, including the loved one.

So you are left with only three really good friends. And it is easy enough to get rid of those, too, all you have to do is disappear for a while and not pick up the phone. They'll give up eventually. You don't have to justify your actions, divide up your belongings or fight over alimony. You will always find someone else to talk to, that is, if you really want to.

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For Seniors, Friendship May Be More Important Than Family

Even if the aging and elderly tend to wind up confined to family circles, Argentine academics Laura Belli and Danila Suárez explore the often untapped benefits of friendship in our later years.

Photograph of two elderly women and an elderly man walking arm in arm. Behind the, there are adverts for famous football players.

Two elderly women and a man walk arm in arm

Philippe Leone/Unsplash
Laura F. Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé

Updated Dec. 10, 2023 at 10:10 p.m.

BUENOS AIRES — What kind of friendship do people most talk about? Most often it is childhood or teenage friendships, while friendships between men and women are repeatedly analyzed. What about friendships among the elderly? How are they affected when friends disappear, at a stage when grieving is already more frequent?

Argentines Laura Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé, two friends with PhDs in philosophy, explore the challenges and benefits of friendship in their book Filosofía de la amistad (Friendship Philosophy).

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They consider how friendships can emerge later in life, in profoundly altered circumstances from those of our youth, with people living through events like retirement, widowhood, reduced autonomy or to a greater or lesser degree, personal deterioration. All these can affect older people's ability to form and keep friendships, even if changes happen at any stage in life.

Filosofía de la amistadexplores the place of friendships amid daunting changes. These are not just the result of ageing itself but also of how one is perceived, nor will they affect everyone exactly the same way. Aging has firstly become a far more diverse experience, with increasing lifespans and better healthcare everywhere, and despite an inevitable restriction in life opportunities, a good many seniors enjoy far greater freedom and life choices than before.

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