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Philosophy

How to Think About Friendships and What Makes Them Meaningful

What types of friendship are there?
What characterizes a meaningful friendship?
How can we think about friendship philosophically and psychologically?


We all have to deal with other people on a daily basis – our bosses, our spouses, our neighbors, old high school friends, you get the deal. Now, some of these relationships appear to be a lot more valuable than others. We usually refer to them as friendships.

When talking about friendship, everyone has a vague idea of how they form, what they consist of and what a good friend should be like.

Though what is setting apart the relationships you are sharing with your spouse and the relationship with our buddies with whom we’re hitting up pubs or playing video games each weekend?
How important are they for a fulfilled life?
What characterizes a friendship that is meaningful to you and your life?

These questions obviously are a lot harder to think about and answer. Luckily, psychologists and philosophers alike have been addressing them for decades and even centuries already.

The thoughts and concepts I want share with you particularly resonated with me during my philosophy studies and are based to a large part on the lectures of Prof. Michael Bordt.

Now, before characterizing what types of friendship exist and how we can think about them in a bigger model I want to introduce you to the Self-Determination-Theory which clarifies why we even need friends.

Self-Determination-Theory

There are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic motivation which comes from outside you (deadlines, rewards, threats) and intrinsic motivation which comes from inside you and is mainly about your drive for fulfilment and growth.

Richard Ryan’s and Edward Deci’s research suggests that all individuals have an intrinsic drive for action and growth. In philosophical terms this could be seen as the will to achieve a fulfilled life.

However, they also found that in order to follow this drive our external environment needs to fulfill our three universal basic needs:

  1. Autonomy: This need refers to our ability to make our own choices. Mind that this not necessarily means complete independence from others but rather the ability to make our decisions in our social context.
  2. Competence: Our ability to control outcomes through our knowledge, mastery of skill and competence.
  3. Relatedness: This is our sense of belonging to others, being cared for, mattering to others but also what you are able to give back to them.

In order to lead a healthy and effective life, achieve well-being and not become demotivated these needs or nutrients how they call them must be provided constantly. If we fail to receive one or more of them, we feel demotivated.

Friendship which we especially care about now fits into the “Relatedness” category. Therefore, without having friends, our sense of belonging to a certain social context is reduced, consequently leading to a compromised ability to lead a fulfilling life.

This demonstrates our inherent need for friendship. But how can we think about and categorize it now? What characterizes a deep and meaningful friendship?

Aristotle and the 3 Types of Friendship

Even Aristotle who lived over two millennia ago noticed that man is by nature a zoon politicon, a social animal. Even though there are contrary theories out there, they all have in common that humans at least live together in social contexts.

So naturally, we seem to be bound in relationships with other people. In his Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes three kinds of friendship:

  1. Friendships of Utility: Based on mutual utility. These friendships are most common. For instance, perhaps you water your neighbor’s plants when they’re on vacation and they in turn give you some of their self-made fruit jam. If you hand over the physics solutions to your classmate and they write your history presentation, your friendship is also based on utility. Business relations also fall into this category.
  2. Friendships of Pleasure: These friendships are based on sensual pleasure. Of course, sexual and physical pleasures are also included in this category, but it should be interpreted in a wider sense. Your drinking buddies with whom you play video games fall into this category, so do the people in your sports team or whom you go cycling with.
  3. Friendships of the Good: This is what we would call a deep, respectful friendship, a friendship of virtue. In contrast to the others, it is not selfish. Rather it is formed with people you like and care for their well-being for the sake of them.
    These are the rarest kinds of friendships and they take the longest time to form. They are usually based on a shared set of beliefs and values.

Even though we are encouraged by Aristotle to seek the third kind, we are not automatically bad people for having the other two. We all have friends of the previous sort and it likely is impossible to get around without them.

He, however, states that some pleasures can also influence you negatively. More importantly even, it’s most critical if you fail to realize that the first two friendships belong into the lower category and that you don’t strive for the third!

A Model of Friendship

Now, you might wonder what makes the third kind so valuable? How can we even love someone for their own sake if they are not perfect in their virtues and repeatedly fail over the course of their lifetime? What could constitute and justify this kind of friendship?

Let me introduce you to the model of friendship that I learned about during my studies:

Against the common belief that there are only two people a and b involved in a friendship we can actually introduce a third aspect F. F can be described as the friendship’s reason.

Both a and b have a positive attitude towards F. This means they want, wish for and consider F as valuable. This reason can differ from friendship to friendship but in general is bound to Aristotle’s three types.

With the first two relationships described by Aristotle it is rather easy to discern the underlying reason. In a friendship of utility, F is this exact underlying utility that both a and b profit of. In a friendship of pleasure, F is the underlying sense of pleasure.

But what about the third kind? Here it becomes a little trickier to discern F. Let me propose to you the following explanation:

In a friendship of the good both a and b have a shared concept of the fulfilled life.

Now, this can be expressed in a joint life project like founding a family, which one person alone wouldn’t be capable to realize. Your spouse definitely fits into this category.

On the other hand, it can also simply refer to a common set of beliefs about the meaningful existence. As such encounters are rare you won’t have a lot of these friendships during your lifetime.

You probably also noticed that in this kind definition it is not even necessary to define what a meaningful existence consists of. This concept can vary from friendship to friendship and is therefore individual.

So, why should we have a positive attitude towards this joint set of beliefs? Why should we desire and wish for it?

First of all, our friend can help us to realize our life project together with him. Secondly, his different perspective on our life with the right amount of criticism, nudges in the right direction and ideas helps us to come closer to our ideal.

You could argue now that we actually don’t love our friend, that we rather just desire our ideal, that such a friendship is actually one of utility.

However, the character of a person, their identity, their actions and behavior are to a large part constituted by the ideal they are striving for. This also answers our question about how we can altruistically love our friend even if he/she is far from perfect:
As long as they are honestly striving for our joint ideal, it becomes part of their character and therefore enables us to love them altruistically as well.

What to take away

The last points have been rather descriptive, so let’s add a normative dimension to this whole subject, meaning what parts of the subject we just learned can you and I implement into our lives?

Start thinking about your friends:
Without judging yourself or feeling ashamed, which friends of yours belong into which category (of course this is not always as clear as Aristotle made it seem like)? Who are the people you truly respect and can sympathize with? Maybe you even overvalue your current friends?

If you feel like you only have friendships of the first two kinds, then don’t worry. As we established this doesn’t make you a bad person. You should however realize that there is a more valuable form of friendship out there that you should actively strive for. Maybe there’s somebody you want to get to know better?

How to think about friendships of pleasure:
Friendships that are based on pleasure are not automatically negative. I’d say they actually add a lot your psychological well-being and having fun is in general something that is worthwhile to do.

On the other hand, you should watch out what pleasures you are engaging in. Often group dynamics lead us to doing things that we actually do not encourage in the slightest.

You are the average of the people you surround yourself with – and drugs and alcohol are likely not going to cut it in the long run. So, you as well as me should ask ourselves whether our friends are in line with our beliefs!

How to think about friendships of utility:
Friendships of utility primarily also are not to be considered as negative. Only a handful people would be able to live economically self-sustainable nowadays. The unpersonal friendships of utility we experience every day and that involve the exchange of money for goods are basically unavoidable.

However, maybe some of the relationships that you actually consider as close also fall into this category. Think about it, when do people contact you? It is very likely that there are some who only do so when they need something from you. Keep a wary eye on them and try not to get used.

How to think about friendships of the good:
As established several times before, this is the “pure” form of friendship. They are hardest to find because it is hard to find virtuous people. Also, you yourself have to be virtuous to a certain degree and striving for your ideals.

Therefore, ask yourself what virtues you consider as valuable for yourself and strive for them. This is probably the hardest part of them all as it requires constant self-reflection and the need of taking inventory of yourself.

There are countless of lists (https://themindfool.com/a-list-of-virtues/) out there which might help you out. I also consider this blog as a way of sharing my experiences and what I constantly learn about getting closer to the virtuous self.

The last question you should ask yourself: Do the friend(s) in this category actually share your concept of a meaningful existence or do you overvalue them? If that’s the case, then you should take their advice with a larger grain of salt than you probably do now as it might move you farther away from your destination!

Now I hope this way of thinking about relationships resonated as much with you as it did with me and that you were able to take something away! Have a nice week, my friend!


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It’s especially helpful to people who are new to the self-development scene but should but taken with a grain of salt!

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