March 2015 Print

Friendship--Good for Mind, Body, and Soul


by Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D.

We Americans are a lonely people and are only getting lonelier. Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people in the United States who felt they had someone they could discuss important matters with dropped by more than a third; now fully a quarter of the population declare that they have no one to confide in (McPherson & Smith-Lovin, 2006). For the majority, their only confidant is a family member. The average social network, constituting both family and friends shrank from 2.94 people to 2.08. The study documents an astonishing disappearance of human closeness, especially friendship in the social life of our country.

At the same time, the U.S. population has become more depressed and suicidal. A century ago depression was rare, only one percent became depressed during their lifetime. The prevalence of depression swelled dramatically in subsequent generations, the bulk of the growth occurring among adolescents and young adults (Cross-National Collaborative Group, 1992). Currently, a quarter of young adults (18-29 years of age) have already experienced major depression (Kessler et al., 2003).

Attempted and successful suicide accompanies depression and has grown accordingly during the same period, especially for adolescents, young adults, and the elderly. The rate of successful suicides for adolescents has increased from 3.5 in 1960 to 11.3 per 100,000 in 1988 (CDC Health Statistics, 2003). Among the elderly, those over 65 years of age and especially males, have shown a comparable increase in suicide. As we have lost connection to each other via friendship, we are self-destructing.

Friendship is an endangered species in the human landscape; lest it disappear entirely, it would be a benefit to individuals and their communities to learn how to re-establish full, intimate friendships.

The Varieties of Human Friendship

The decline of human friendship would have mystified ancient Greeks, who saw the fullest expression of friendship as superior even to marriage. True, authentic friendship was rare, the product of the intellect and the will, and had to be predicated upon the highest virtues. According to Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) personal friendship could be based on utility, pleasure, or goodness.

Friendships based on utility are useful to both parties, expecting the more or less equitable exchange of benefits, an informal quid pro quo, if you will. Should the exchange become unbalanced, then the friendship is likely to deteriorate. An example might be your neighbor, who lends you his chain saw, and you let him use your pressure washer; you exchange Christmas cards and alternate attending each other’s social events.

In friendship predicated on pleasure, the enjoyment of each other’s company based on shared activities and interests is what binds. Once the pleasure is gone, so is the friendship. For men, fishing buddies or golf partners might be an example of a pleasure-based friendship. For women, perhaps a quilting group or a book club.

The third and most elevated basis for friendship is virtue, in striving for what is best for the other. Without doubt, virtue-based friends would exchange goods and services and enjoy each other’s company, but there is a commitment beyond simply the benefits to be gained by the relationship. A willingness to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the other, rather than attend to one’s own needs and desires, distinguishes it from hedonistic or utilitarian friendship.

Virtue-based friendships will be more stable, better able to withstand the ebb and flow of difficulties most human relationships encounter. A virtue-based friendship embodies more choice without the natural incentives of benefits received, pleasures gained, or the biological imperatives of family to sustain it. It is the most demanding and rarest of friendships.


Current theories of depression presume that individuals with certain biological and psychological vulnerabilities may become depressed when exposed to stressful or traumatic events. The biological vulnerability constitutes an overly reactive nervous system, particularly in response to stress. Psychological vulnerabilities are attitudes, beliefs, expecta­tions, and explanations which are used habitually but are inaccurate and dysfunctional. For those prone to depression, these cognitive distortions highlight beliefs that the world is a dangerous, threatening place in which you, the individual, are helpless to confront the challenges of living. In other words, bad things will most assuredly happen, you can’t keep them from happening, and when the awful events occur, the effects will be devastating.

We all experience adversity—romantic disappointments, job loss, conflict in close relationships, trauma, loss due to death or geographic relocation, illness or injury, physical and intellectual decline of aging, to mention only a few; but most of us do not become depressed. Much depends upon the social context and the meaning ascribed to the event. Individuals who already believe themselves to be deeply flawed, e.g. defective, unlovable, helpless, or incompetent, when subjected to adverse events, may despair. Those who are optimistic, have a healthy appreciation for themselves, and expect to prevail are less likely to become depressed.

Interpersonal relationships play an integral role in the onset and recovery from depression. Often strained relationships or loss of an intimate relationship can trigger depression, while stable, satisfying marriages and friendships are protective (Joiner, 1997). Should depression develop, an extensive social network can promote recovery (Johnson et al., 1999). This does not mean that having friends and satisfying familial relationships will prevent you from experiencing negative emotions; far from it. Sadness, loss, self-doubt, discouragement are very much a part of the human condition; it is what you do with those experiences that will make the difference. Your friends can have a great deal to do with the meaning you ascribe to these difficult events.

Friends of the Depressed

Let us assume that a friend has become depressed; he is suffering, reproaching himself, avoiding those who know him, and neglectful of his obligations and his recreations. He does not accept social invitations, does not answer the phone, and indeed does not engage in most of the activities he previously enjoyed. How would his authentic friends respond to his plight?

The research cited above did not utilize any Aristotelian distinctions for the basis of friendship. Having an extensive social network with frequent interactions was protective, regardless of the quality or basis of the friend­ship. Which type of friendship would offer the most robust of protections?

In a friendship based on utility, in the short term the friend might intensify his efforts to engage with his friend, assuming a history of satisfactory exchange of benefits. A temporary deficit in benefits obtained would be tolerable but should the imbalance persist or grow, we would expect that the parties would spend less and less time with each other. If the quid pro quo of invitations to each other’s home or trading cigars ceased, the friendship would begin to dissipate.

If the basis of friendship was the pleasure of each other’s company, again we might expect a temporary burst of effort to re-establish the enjoyment, followed by a decline in the relationship. Depressed individuals can be exasperatingly self-absorbed and communicate pessimism, hopelessness, and helplessness. It would not take long for someone seeking pleasurable company to start looking elsewhere.

The response would take a different course for a friendship based in virtue. Personal negative consequences would be of minimal consideration by the one who would console the depressed sufferer. Indeed, the consoler might more energetically approach the depressed friend in order to do what would be best for the other; and the misery of the other might become to some degree his own. The consoler would not be easily put off. Not only would the friends be willing to attend to the friend, he or she might feel obliged for the betterment of the friend.

More importantly a friend in virtue would also be willing to share with the depressed friend the ways in which his judgments about himself and others are in error, even though the friend might not welcome the correction. A friend in virtue might challenge his friend’s despair and self-pity, and appeal to him to accept his suffering as part of God’s plan for him, a cross to not only be born but embraced, for suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to someone.

While being an authentic friend seeking the good in friends will expand your social network and would be good for your health and your soul, it is not the primary reason to seek friendships based in virtue. Ironically, that would turn a friendship of the highest order into a utilitarian friendship of the lowest order.

Friendships based on virtue can be cultivated, and we have a concrete example to guide us. It is often difficult for me to believe the supernatural reality that Christ is my friend, and yet that is what the Gospels tell me repeatedly and emphatically. And it is the example that Christ exemplifies for His followers. That should be sufficient for me to endeavor to be as excellent a friend as I can be. God in His Wisdom has created the world and human character such that being and having friends is really good for human beings on the natural level.




Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX.

Centers for Disease Control. (2003). Deaths, percent of total deaths, and death rates in 5 year age groups, by race and sex; United States, 2000. Centers for Disease Control, National Vital Statistics System.

Cross-National Collaborative Group. (1992). The changing rate of major depression: cross-national comparisons. Journal of American Medical Association, 268, 3098-3105.

Johnson, S. L., Winett, C.A., Meyer, B., et al. (1999). Social support and the course of bipolar disorder. American Psychological Association, 180(4), 558-566.

Joiner, T.E. (1997). Shyness and low social support as interactive diatheses, with loneliness as mediator: Testing an interpersonal personality view of vulnerability. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106(3), 386-394.

Kessler, J.R., Koratz, D., et al., (2003). The epidemiology of major depressive disorder. Journal of American Medical Association, 289, 3095-3105.

McPerson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375.