With the proliferation of social media, our fixation on networking and our increasing obsession with the number of likes and followers, our list of contacts and connections has undoubtedly increased.
Unfortunately, quantity is trumping quality as our relationships are becoming more superficial and more transactional.
Our identify and perception of self is getting lost in the noise
Real friendships are taking a backseat. And as one gets more senior in the workplace, behind the façade of popularity, isolation and loneliness is becoming more prevalent.
Recently, I attended a session with renowned Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, who is an expert on the art and science of happiness. Professor Brook’s brilliant insights got me thinking about the importance, role, and types of friends.
Prof Brooks describes three levels of friendship, based on the classification offered by Aristotle over 2,000 years ago:
- Friendships of utility – these are “deal friendships” where both parties derive mutual benefit. Examples include business partnerships, favour-based relationships with co-workers, and friendships with people who can help you “get things done”. Basically, you expect to gain something out of such a relationship.
- Friendships of pleasure – these are friendships based on enjoyment and are usually centred around a shared interest like sports, drinking and eating out, or hobbies. They don’t go too deep and may come to an end as people’s tastes and preferences change.
- Useless friendships – these are true friendships. They thrive without being dependent on any mutual benefit. You may share a common interest with your friend, but the relationship goes beyond that. It brings you lasting comfort, joy, and satisfaction.
“Useless friendships” are the best kind of friendships. They are essential for our wellbeing and happiness, yet many of us struggle with maintaining these relationships as we grow older. So, this week, my message serves as a reminder to have more “useless” friends in your life, with a few practical suggestions on how to go about this.
At the outset, I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with having all three kinds of friendships. We get different things from different people – and conversely, we give different things to different people. Having a variety of relationships is part and parcel of life. That said, it’s a good idea to reflect on the quality of your friendships and examine whether they are truly making you feel more fulfilled.
It’s worth noting that we don’t need dozens of friends to be happy – a few close friends are all one really requires. This means both introverts and extroverts are equally capable of reaping the benefits of friendship.
The most rewarding friendships are those pursued for their own sake – and not as a means to something else. Aristotle called these “perfect friendships”, complete in themselves, while Professor Brooks terms them “useless friendships” for their lack of utility! In these most intimate and genuine of relationships, people share a high degree of camaraderie, connect at a deeper level, and enjoy the maximum emotional satisfaction.
Sadly, the older, busier, and more senior we get, the more we tend to gravitate towards deal friendships and allocate less time to our real friends. As Professor Brooks observes in his article in The Atlantic:
Unfortunately, societal incentives push many of us toward deal friends and away from real friends. The average American worker spends 40 hours on the job during the workweek. In leadership, the numbers are much higher. Most of us work with other people, so during the workweek we have less time for our family than for our colleagues, let alone for friends outside of work. In this way, deal friends can easily crowd out real friends, leaving us without the joys of the latter.
While they may be useful and pleasant enough, deal friendships are the least rewarding of all friendships, with weak emotional bonds and minimal happiness benefits. As Professor Brooks explains:
They feel incomplete because they don’t involve the whole self. If the relationship is necessary to the performance of a job, it might require us to maintain a professional demeanor. We can’t afford to risk these connections through confrontation, difficult conversations, or intimacy.
The deficit of real friends is compounded by the fact that we live in an increasingly solitary world, with loneliness now being termed an epidemic by many experts. This can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including changing social norms, vanishing community structures, the rise of virtual worlds, an increase in remote work, and more.
Together, these factors add up to startling numbers of lonely people, whose desire for true friendship remains unmet. Even highly successful leaders, who are constantly surrounded by people, often confess themselves to be lonely – signalling a lack of real friends in their life.
Putting “useless” friends front and centre
It can be helpful to approach friendship in a straightforward, systematic way. Start by assessing the problem (if, indeed, there is one), then take steps to address the situation.
Here are four suggestions to help you rediscover the joy of real friendships:
1. Do a friendship reality check.
Simon Sinek talks about how easily we have come to use the word “friends”. In an interview, he stated:
You know, I have 2,500 or 2,300 “friends” on Facebook. They’re not my friends. They’re nice people, I like them…we clearly share common interests…but they’re not my friends. My friends are people who, if I’m in a time of need, they will be there for me no matter what. My friends are people who I can be weak around… My friends are people who, when they need something, I help them because I want to, not because I think they want something from me.
Now, take a few moments to think about your friends. If you were feeling down and out, who would notice? Who can you call at a moment’s notice to share your feelings? With whom can you discuss personal matters, hopes and failures? The names you can rattle off without thinking are your real friends.
Another good indicator of friendship is how you feel in the company of the other person. In his article on friendship, Dr. Peter Attia offers the following questions as worth asking:
When you’re around a person, do you admire yourself more or less? Do you say things that are not quite you? Are you not quite living up to your own values? Maybe it’s a joke. Maybe it’s the interests of the other person. Do you act more materialistic than you are? Do you act more callous than you are? Do you put up with jokes at the expense of other people that you ordinarily wouldn’t and that you shouldn’t?
2. Prioritize “useless” friendships.
Consider the time you spend with the real friends identified above, as compared with your deal friends. Have your “useless” friends taken a backseat?
The truth is that friendship is something of a zero-sum game, given that we have only a limited number of hours at our disposal. Prioritizing real friendships will mean consciously cutting back on social engagements with deal friends – and that’s okay! Withdrawing from transactional relationships can feel uncomfortable at first, but you will certainly feel lighter and more fulfilled as you carve out more time for friends who allow you to be authentic and make you feel good about yourself.
3. Make new friends.
If you found it hard to name any people you consider real friends, you’re certainly not alone – millions of people around the world share your sentiment. This simply means it’s a good time for you to start building new, more meaningful friendships. It would be a good idea take your search outside your workplace as well as your industry network. This way, you will be able to meet and interact with people in a more authentic way, unclouded by factors like ambition and career advancement.
Of course, making new friends can be tricky and awkward, especially if you’re out of practice. Shared interests can be a good place to start – these relationships can be deepened with time and effort. Try joining a group dedicated to something you love, be it running, music, photography, cooking, books and so on. Other possible places to strike up new friendships include your neighbourhood, community gatherings and charitable organisations. And take this excellent piece of advice from Professor Brooks:
When you meet someone you like, don’t overthink it: Invite them over.
4. Don’t be afraid to get “intense”.
Very often, we stick to safe, superficial topics in social settings – holiday plans, recent acquisitions, kids’ schooling, current events, and so on. One of the secrets to forming deeper relationships, however, is to venture into deeper territory – our true beliefs, passions, values and so on. Such conversations are generally easier in intimate groups, so try to opt for smaller get-togethers over large gatherings.
And remember that deal friends don’t have to remain that way; through engaging in more meaningful conversations and not fostering a quid pro quo arrangement, you can try to convert them into real friendships as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, men find it more difficult to cultivate deeper friendships. As Professor Brooks notes:
Women generally have larger, denser, and more supportive friend networks than men. Furthermore, women generally base their friendships on social and emotional support, whereas men are more likely to base friendships on shared activities, including work.
This certainly doesn’t mean men can’t form close, meaningful friendships – I can personally vouch for that! It just means the process might involve getting out of your comfort zone and making a greater effort, at least initially.
There is nothing wrong with having deal friendships. However, it is important to make sure they don’t displace your real friends, especially as you get older. Around our closest friends, we don’t need to be measured in what we say and do: we can relax and simply be ourselves. These relationships can weather arguments and difficult conversations, as well as survive changes in personal and professional circumstances. At their best, such friendships fulfil a basic human need – to connect at a deeper level, and to be witnessed for who we truly are.