the importance of friendship

Recently, I started talking about a new book, Carlin Flora’s Friendfluence: The surprising ways friends make us who we are. Take a look at those introductory thoughts, and then continue reading here.

This post (as well as the one with my introductory thoughts) is a revised version of what I originally wrote. The new version takes into account some feedback I got from Carlin in several emails. She did not ask me to make these revisions; I decided that myself.

The chapter, “The incredible perks of friendship,” included this excerpt on how friends “enhance romance”:

“Friends are often cast in opposition to lovers, but they turn out to fuel love more often than obstruct it. Friends, in fact, are particularly good at finding you someone new: They introduce people to 35 to 40 percent of their sexual partners. That said, young adults often ditch friends as soon as they take up with a new guy or girl, but Meliksah Demir warns that while a supportive romantic partner can have a greater effect on happiness for ‘emerging adults’ than her parents or friends can, as soon as she’s single, her friends are what determines her level of contentment. So keep your friends around, in case the flames of passion die down.”

I don’t like that last line, but taking the book as a whole, it is clear that Carlin really does not seem to believe that you should keep your friends around primarily as back-ups in case your latest romance fizzles. In the earlier version of this post, I quoted from an article on Yahoo. Carlin sent me the transcript of what she actually said to Yahoo, and it is now evident to me that her point of view was mischaracterized.

The more accurate representation of what Carlin really believes is best captured by what she said on p. 237 of her book:

“Singles should not be automatically and judgmentally viewed as free-floating and disconnected, but as people who are very likely to have one or more ‘significant others’ in their lives – of the friend variety.”

In my earlier version of this post, I said that I wished that Carlin had extended her case for friendship to the realm of policy. In an email to me, she said that Friendfluence is not a policy book, but pointed to two policy-relevant excerpts.

From p. 31:

“De Vries believes that friends are very important to social life. Yet, as he writes in one of his papers, “The benefits of friendship are unfortunately constrained by a culture and social system in which friendship is frequently discounted or doubted–or worse….In contrast [to families], the ambiguous social and legal recognition of friendship dramatically limits friendship’s potential.” It might not affect your personal constellation of friends much, but at the big-picture level, how it is defined has real consequences on how friendship can flourish and contribute to the well-being of citizens and the smooth functioning of society.

Consider the health care system, which de Vries says doesn’t recognize the role of pals. Research on friends who are caregivers points to the contortions they often have to go through to convince staff members and the patients’ relatives who are not caring for them that their intentions are pure. That’s because there is a presumption that a friend would be more likely to take advantage of a patient than a family member would, he says.

A tendency to minimize their importance is also apparent in the way we treat someone whose friend has died. ‘I call them disenfranchised grievers,’ says de Vries. ‘No one ever sends friends condolences or flowers. No boss would give you a compassion fare to travel to a friend’s funeral. Only the family is entitled to grieve.’

Often, mourning a friend is just as painful as mourning a relative, yet the lack of formal support for these grievers can make it harder for them to cope. Just as we can learn about friendship’s possibilities by looking at people who make the most of their friendships, we can learn about friendship’s meaning through grief.”

From p. 137:

“The evidence of the salutary effects of friendship is so strong and is linked so clearly to common killers like heart disease, cancer, and obesity that one of the smartest health care policies never discussed on the Senate floor could seriously be an initiative to encourage and nurture friendships.”

Carlin also said in her email that in my focus on the romance section of her “incredible perks” chapter, I left out any mention of the other benefits of friendship she described, such as “creative insight, happiness, being inspired, helping your career, and knowing oneself better.” This is true. Those other sections are important. I never write comprehensive book reviews – I focus on particular points that I want to make. Friendfluence includes entire chapters I have no interest in discussing, such as one on childhood friendships and another on adolescent friendships.

Friendfluence is a good contribution. It points to important social science research, and it keeps friendship in our cultural conversations. There were chapters I greatly enjoyed reading, such as the one on the implications of technology for friendship. I think the book has the potential to add to our appreciation for friendship.

I thank Carlin Flora for taking the time to write to me to clarify her perspective on issues I raised.

Friends photo available from Shutterstock