The Evolutionary Benefit of Friendship
Healthy friendships offer far more than a reliable person to share a beer with. Research shows they can make us healthier, wealthier, happier and overall more successful. Here’s how.
Is friendship important for our survival?
At first glance, the answer isn’t obvious. Other relationships get more play: romantic partners, parents and kids, families, professional networks. It’s easy to find books on improving your marriage or your relationship with your coworkers. The ability to create and maintain friendships, though, seems a bit taken for granted. Often it appears that either we all do it with relative ease, or we just don’t care. We have a feeling that neither of these is true.
Friendships require sustained effort that can often be just as confusing to navigate as a marriage. Over time they will go through ups and downs, face challenges from time pressures or geographical constraints, and have to resolve misunderstandings. And these are the good ones. We also have to try out many friends to find the ones who stick, and weed out the ones who turn out to be bad for us. And unlike our ancestors, we have to put a lot of effort into considering what is a friend, given the seemingly infinite number of connections we can make on social media.
Our ability to form relationships with people who aren’t related to us, however, is a critical skill that helped turn us into humans. It’s a fundamental part of who we are.
Biologically, our ability to develop and maintain social connections is directly related to the size of our brain. The research of Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s Number, one of our mental models), has demonstrated that because we are limited by our brain capacity, the fitness advantage of larger social groups was a driver in the evolution of parts of the brain. Other scientists have corroborated this idea that our larger brains are primarily a social versus ecological adaptation. It wasn’t because we happened to have a bigger brain for say, hunting, that we pursued complex social relationships, but rather that these relationships were critical for the evolutionary development of neocortical capacity. Friends made us smarter and gave us more potential.
Looking at ourselves through a biological lens also suggests that one of the obvious advantages to friendships is the diversity they create. If you are being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it would be nice to be able to rely on more than one individual for help. And, perhaps more importantly, your chances of thwarting the tiger are increased if you are part of a tribe that includes people with different skill sets. Someone who understands tiger behavior, someone who can kill it, and someone who can treat any resulting wounds could be helpful. Furthermore, being part of this diverse group means that when the environment changes, someone can likely adapt and lead the way for everyone else.
In a modern context, having diversity in our relationships has multiple applications. For one, it doesn’t make much sense to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Committed romantic partners are wonderful, but if they die the last thing you want to be is alone. Your survival is quite literally dependent on having close friends who can support you through the hard times. And having friends with different specialties, interests, strengths and weaknesses can help us test out ideas and develop our character by giving us a safe space to experiment.
What about the value of friends who are smarter or better at the things we aspire to do? As in dealing with the tiger, friends with different talents can help us realize our own potential.
In her book The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver provides a convincing argument for the value of friends. They are worth it for the benefit to cardiovascular health alone! Interestingly, she writes that “social integration and close relationships are the most important predictors of mortality, well above things like alcohol consumption, exercise and diet.” With a network of reliable friends, we live longer and in better health. And good friends make us feel good. There is a reciprocity that Leaver explores in all sorts of manifestations, demonstrating just how amazing friendships can be for the quality of our lives.
The value of friendship has been evident for a long time. Aristotle devoted a good part of the Nicomachean Ethics to contemplating friendship, but took it as self-evident that friends were important. He wrote, “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Defining what makes a good friend, fine, he could spend some time on that, but there was no doubt that friendship itself was “a necessary component of happiness.”
To really see the value of friends, think of your social ecosystem, the web of interpersonal connections that you engage with as you live your life. Leaver asks, “what do we get from friendship that we don’t get from romantic relationships, family or work?” When you answer this question, you’ll see where your friends fit.
The answers are going to be different for everyone. It could be that friends provide you with a place to go to admit your fears and frustrations without being judged, or a history of yourself that you tap into to keep you grounded, or someone to go to axe throwing with on Thursday nights. The point is, we can get profound positives from friends that we cannot get in our other relationships.
We become who we are in great part because of the friends we have. — Alexander Nehamas
Aristotle also said that “though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not.” Yes, they do take work. But the good news is that if you put some effort into learning what it means to be a good friend, the rest isn’t going to feel like work at all. Why? Alexander Nehamas writes in On Friendship that friendship “provides companionship and a safety net when we are in various kinds of trouble; it offers sympathy for our misfortunes, discretion for our secrets, encouragement for our efforts.”
So why does friendship seem to get relegated to the bottom of our relationship endeavors? Leaver argues that “we’ve built a culture of individuality without knowing how to be alone successfully or how to truly combat loneliness.” If friendship becomes another check box on your daily to-do list, you’re probably not going to feel like you actually have friends. That kind of social interaction is going to feel more stressful than beneficial, and consequently you will likely start to avoid it.
A further consideration is that friendship seems to go by the wayside as we pursue the things we believe we need to consider ourselves successful. Material goods, titles, fame, a large number of social media followers. Whatever.
But Leaver’s point is that friends are actually a key component of success. Without them we become isolated and vulnerable to loneliness, pain, and poor health. With them we live longer, with more laughter and less fear, and a higher quality of life. Doesn’t that sound like something worth some effort?