America: Land of Loners? Americans, plugged in and on the move, are confiding in their pets, their computers, and their spouses. What they need is to rediscover the value of friendship.

Daniel Akst – The Wilson Quarterly

Copyright The Wilson Quarterly
Americans, plugged in and on the move, are confiding in their pets, their computers, and their spouses. What they need is to rediscover the value of friendship.
Science-fiction writers make the best seers. In the late 1950s far-sighted Isaac Asimov imagined a sunny planet called Solaria, on which a scant 20,000 humans dwelt on far-flung estates and visited one another only virtually, by materializing as “trimensional images”—avatars, in other words. “They live completely apart,” a helpful robot explained to a visiting earthling, “and never see one another except under the most extraordinary circumstances.”
We have not, of course, turned into Solarians here on earth, strictly limiting our numbers and shunning our fellow humans in revulsion. Yet it’s hard not to see some Solarian parallels in modern life. Since Asimov wrote The Naked Sun, Americans have been engaged in wholesale flight from one another, decamping for suburbs and Sunbelt, splintering into ever smaller households, and conducting more and more of their relationships online, where avatars flourish. The churn rate of domestic relations is especially remarkable, and has rendered family life in the United States uniquely unstable. “No other comparable nation,” the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes, “has such a high level of multiple marital and cohabiting unions.”
Oceans of ink have been spilled on these developments, yet hardly any attention is paid to the one institution—friendship—that could pick up some of the interpersonal slack. But while sizzling eros hogs the spotlight these days—sex sells, after all—too many of us overlook philia, the slower-burning and longer-lasting complement. That’s ironic, because today “friends” are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a “lite” alternative to the caloric meshugaas of family life.
But in restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer. Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.
It’s possible that Aristotle took all this too seriously, but today the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and in our culture we take friendship—a state of strong mutual affection in which sex or kinship isn’t primary—far too lightly. We’re good at currying contacts and we may have lots of pals, but by falling short on Aristotle’s third and most important category of friendship, we’ve left a hole in our lives. Now that family life is in turmoil, reinvigorating our notion of friendship—to mean something more than mere familiarity—could help fill some of the void left by disintegrating household arrangements and social connections frayed by the stubborn individualism of our times.
Friendship is uniquely suited to fill this void because, unlike matrimony or parenthood, it’s available to everyone, offering concord and even intimacy without aspiring to be all-consuming. Friends do things for us that hardly anybody else can, yet ask nothing more than friendship in return (though this can be a steep price if we take friendship as seriously as we should). The genius of friendship rests firmly on its limitations, which are better understood as boundaries. Think of it as the moderate passion—constrained, yet also critical. If friendship, as hardheaded Lord Byron would have it, really is “love without his wings,” we can all be grateful for its earthbound nature.
But we live now in a climate in which friends appear dispensable. While most of us wouldn’t last long outside the intricate web of interdependence that supplies all our physical needs—imagine no electricity, money, or sewers—we’ve come to demand of ourselves truly radical levels of emotional self-sufficiency. In America today, half of adults are unmarried, and more than a quarter live alone. As Robert Putnam showed in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, civic involvement and private associations were on the wane at the end of the 20th century. Several years later, social scientists made headlines with a survey showing that Americans had a third fewer nonfamily confidants than two decades earlier. A quarter of us had no such confidants at all.
In a separate study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), surveyed more than 3,000 randomly chosen Americans and found they had an average of four “close social contacts” with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. But only half of these contacts were solely friends; the rest were a variety of others, including spouses and children.
Here, as on so many fronts, we often buy what we need. The affluent commonly hire confidants in the form of talk therapists, with whom they may maintain enduring (if remunerated) relationships conducted on a first-name basis. The number of household pets has exploded throughout the Western world, suggesting that not just dogs but cats, rats, and parakeets are often people’s best friends. John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who studies loneliness, says he’s convinced that more Americans are lonely—not because we have fewer social contacts, but because the ones we have are more harried and less meaningful.
Developing meaningful friendships—having the kind of people in your life who were once known as “intimates”—takes time, but too many of us are locked in what social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has called “the cult of conspicuous busyness,” from which we seem to derive status and a certain perverse comfort even as it alienates us from one another. Throw in two careers and some kids, and something’s got to give. The poet Kenneth Koch, whose friends included the brilliant but childless John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, laid out the problem in verse:
You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two.
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