FriendsFeb 02, 2023
The sitcom Friends is one of the most popular television shows of all-time. Airing for over a decade from 1994 to 2004, the show revolves around six friends in their 20s and 30s who live in Manhattan. These friends spend an inordinate amount of time together (sometimes moving in and out of romantic relationships with each other) and live in the same apartment building (above Central Perk, their favorite “third place”).
They come to rely on each other through the ebbs and flows of life. The iconic theme song for the show, I’ll Be There for You by The Rembrandts, explicitly calls it out the critical interdependency of these relationships:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke
Your love life's DOA
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month
Or even your year, but
I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)
Social Connection is a Key to Healthy Longevity
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is considered one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, having started in 1938 during the Great Depression and still active today. Its director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, has given a TED talk with over 44M views and recently co-authored a book on key insights from the study, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. One of his key conclusions: the stronger our relationships, the more likely we are to live happy, satisfying, and overall healthier lives. In fact, the study reveals that our connections with others can predict the health of our bodies and our brains as we go through life.
Perhaps more than they realized, Rachel, Monica, and the characters on Friends investment in each other was just as much an investment in their individual and collective health and well-being.
We are spending more time alone with potential health implications (Source: American Time Use Survey via Washington Post)
Yet, We’re in a Friendship Recession
If relationships are one of the keys to a long, healthy life, it is unfortunate that we seem to be struggling as a society to maintain friends. In a comparison study from 1990 to 2021, Americans experienced a marked decrease in the number of close friends. There are 4x as many people, 12% overall, that have no close friend outside of their family.
In a recent podcast of Plain English, Derek Thompson, a journalist at The Atlantic, explores with economist Bryce Ward the fact that America is going through a “friendship recession”. Starting in 2013 (well before the pandemic), people from every demographic – young and old, male and female, white and non-white, metro and rural – began to spend more time alone. This figure spiked with the pandemic: in 2021, the average American spent nearly 10 more hours per week alone as compared to 2013. From 2003 (when the dataset was created) to 2013, the amount of time spent alone was largely unchanged. Something has happened in the last decade.
One of the likely culprits is the role of technology, particularly the availability to stream entertainment 24x7 from any device. Time spent streaming is time that you are not spending with friends and friends aren’t spending with you. Both parties lose out on time together. A repeated decision for personal entertainment in the moment can have a long-ranging impact on the strength of your friendships.
Of course, time alone does not necessarily mean feeling lonely but too much time alone can lead to loneliness. Loneliness can have the health equivalent of smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day.
Friendships Take Time
In part, Rachel and Monica from Friends are close because they spend a lot of time together. In some episodes, it seems like every waking moment. And maintaining and sustaining friendships takes time. By some accounts, it takes more than 200 hours, ideally over a concentrated period of six weeks, for a stranger to grow into a close friend.
British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar is an expert on friendships and the author of the book, Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships. He is credited with “Dunbar’s Number”, a notion that there is a cognitive limit on human groups of about 150 individuals. In his framework, he views friendships as a series of different types of friends based on levels of commitment and chemistry ranging from close friends (~5 people), best friends (~10 people), good friends (~35 people), and friends more broadly (100) to arrive at his 150 friends figure. It takes considerable time to move from one level of friendship, say a good friend, to a deeper type of friendship, such as a best friend. It also takes a meaningful amount of time to maintain close friends.
It is fitting that Friends revolves around six friends; each of them has five close friends, consistent with Dunbar’s structure.
Friendships Take Chemistry
Friends’ characters have a lot in common: they are of similar ages, adventurous, goofy and are drawn to urban life. This doesn’t happen by chance. You tend to like the people who are most like you.
Dunbar has identified seven pillars of friendship where similarities can more easily create connections. These are:
- Have the same language
- Grow up in the same location
- Have similar educational and career experiences
- Have similar hobbies and interests
- Have similar world views (an amalgam of moral views, religious views, and political views)
- Have a similar sense of humor
- Have similar musical tastes
According to Dunbar, the more of these boxes you tick with someone, the more time you will be prepared to invest in them, the more emotionally close you will feel towards them, the closer they will lie to you in the layers of your social network, and the more willing you will be to help them out when they need it. And the more likely they are to help you.
Friendships Take Proximity
Living in proximity to each other is a huge part of what makes Friends work. They were able to easily spend time together and regularly reaffirm their chemistry. The depth of their friendships would simply not happen if they were strewn across New York City or the country for that matter. Location helped enable their friendships.
In this sense, where we live and how we engage where we live are foundational for our social network. If we’re not around those that are similar enough to us, we’re unlikely to want to devote the time to develop a friendship. If we live too far away from those similar to us, we don’t have the ability to spend enough time together to develop friendships.
Choose Place Wisely
Several years ago, Friends held a reunion special. Some of the cast had stayed close; others had strayed. There clearly was an emotional boost breing together. However, life moves on; places change and so do people.
Developing, maintaining, and sustaining relationships takes effort, but, as the Harvard study suggests, it is well worth it if you value your health and longevity. Be sure to consider investments of time and chemistry, but certainly don’t overlook the critical role of place to make it all work.
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