We live in an age where we can communicate with anyone in the world with just the touch of a button. Despite this hyper-connectedness, though, we are experiencing a crisis when it comes to friendships. Social media, FaceTime, texting, all of this gives us a false sense of connection, while the reality is that loneliness has become an epidemic.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Dr. Christopher Kaczor to discuss the importance of meaningful relationships in our lives during what he terms a “friendship recession.”
Dr. Kaczor starts off by saying, “Friendship is one of the most important things in life, and so if we are lacking in deep, true friendships, what that means is we’re lacking something that we really need for our own flourishing. . . You can have lots of money, but if you really have no friends, if you have no deep relationships, it seems to me that your life is going to be impoverished to a great degree.”
He goes on to outline Aristotle’s three kinds of relationships: friends of utility, friends of pleasure, and friends of virtue. He shares about his personal experience with this, saying, “The first time I read about this threefold division of friendship, I immediately thought, well, what kind of friends do I have, and I came to the conclusion almost immediately . . . I was in need of some deeper and more true friendships.”
Dr. Kaczor ends by offering some practical suggestions to help listeners build more meaningful relationships with the people around them. Friendship plays such a valuable role in our lives, and it is important that we prioritize it.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Police Matters. Despite a level of “connectedness” that social media has provided, recent surveys find that authentic friendships are declining among Americans.
Well, we’re joined today by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, author of an article, “Curing the Crisis of Real Friendship.” Dr. Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and has written more than 16 books, 100 scholarly articles and book chapters and is a visiting fellow in the James Madison program at Princeton University. Dr. Christopher Kaczor, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Thank you very much. Looking forward to speaking with you.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, first of all, why would we consider the decline of authentic friendships to be a crisis? What is so important about friendships?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Well, if the ancient philosopher Aristotle is right, friendship is one of the most important things in life, and so if we are lacking in deep, true friendships, what that means is we’re lacking something that we really need for our own flourishing. And I think this is really important insofar as you can have lots of money, but if you really have no friends, if you have no deep relationships, it seems to me that your life is going to be impoverished to a great degree.
So I think Aristotle is right that no one would choose to live a friendless existence even on the condition of having all other good things.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I noticed some of the statistics that you cite in your article that what we could call a friendship recession is especially acute among American men. So what has contributed to this, and why should we care about that?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Well, on average women are better at keeping up friendships, so they have more people they can turn to in times of need, and they have more people that they talk to about important things on a regular basis. And for many men it can be that their only friend is their wife, and so especially if a man doesn’t have a wife, it can turn out that he has fewer and fewer friends at all. And so I do think this is a problem for men, but it’s also a problem for women. The research indicated that women also are having fewer friends, and I think maybe for both of them social media may have something to do with that. If you’re “friends” with people on social media, that can replace authentic, real friendships in person sometimes.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I can’t help but notice perhaps a correlation between what’s happening with especially young men regarding suicide and drug overdose. Do you think there could be a connection?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Oh, I think there’s a very strong connection. When people are lonely, they turn to other substitutes to try to alleviate those feelings of loneliness, and one of the key things that people can turn to are, say, drugs or alcohol as a way of kind of covering up and not feeling the pain of being lonely. And so I think to the degree that people have deep and true friendships, that is going to make their life more enjoyable and cut down on the perceived need to substitute drugs or alcohol for that lacking that that person experiences.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: But not all friendships are alike. They’re not all created equal. There are three different types of friends according to your article. So talk about those and what kind of roles those play in our lives.
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: So I was drawing in my article on the thought of Aristotle. And what he said is that there’s three kinds of friends: friends of utility, friends of pleasure, and friends of virtue. And the basic difference is this: friends of utility are friends in which the relationship is based on a kind of exchange, so we’re friends because you have a car and you drive me around and I have money for gas, so that’s really what our friendship is based on. But Aristotle pointed out that if your friendship is based on a kind of business deal, once the conditions for that change, the friendship is over. So if the only ground of our friendship is I help you in school, once you graduate, that’s the end of the friendship.
Likewise, a friendship of pleasure tends to be kind of unstable, so if the whole friendship is based on partying and just having fun, well, that’s a kind of unstable basis for a friendship also that tends not to last over the years.
So Aristotle thought the best kind of friendship was a friendship of what he called virtue, and the idea here is that our friendship is based on the goodness of who we are as people. I like you because of who you are. You’re a fantastic, excellent person. And you’re friends with me because of who I am. I’m a fantastic, excellent person, too, and that’s a very enduring kind of friendship and he thought the very best kind of friendship to have.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So sometimes people may believe they have a lot of friends, but this list could help us maybe assess what kind of friends we have.
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Oh, I think that’s totally correct. I remember the first time I read about this threefold division of friendship. I immediately thought, well, what kind of friends do I have, and I came to the conclusion almost immediately, well, I only have friends of pleasure and utility, so I realized I was in need of some deeper and more true friendships. So recognizing this can really help us though. If we recognize that we’re deficient in friendship, that can be a first stage to developing deeper and truer friendships.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I’m assuming that the one that we’re aspiring to would be the friendship of virtue. So are there some ways that we can go about trying to pursue either being the kind of person that would have those kinds of friends or just finding those kinds of friends?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Yeah. I think finding the right kind of friends is really, really important. So if you’re looking for a friendship of virtue, you probably want to look to make friends in a situation where people like that are more likely to be found. There are groups of people who try to, for instance, have the virtue of love. They try to love God, and they try to love their neighbor. And this is a core tenet, say, of Christianity and Judaism, and so you might expect to find people in a context of worship to be the kind of people that are trying, not always successfully but at least trying to love God and love neighbor. You might also find friendships like that among people who are doing some sort of strenuous activity. Think of friends that are friends through sports, or through running club, or Jiu-Jitsu or something. It takes a certain kind of virtue to be able to do that kind of activity, so you might find friends of virtue in that kind of context.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What else? What are some things that we should look for in other people when we’re looking for deeper friendships, perhaps some things that we need to look at in our own self?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: I guess what I would say there is that there’s different kinds of people that try to find happiness in different kinds of ways. So some kinds of people seek happiness through bodily pleasure, and it is true that bodily pleasure can give us a kind of happiness. But it tends to be very short-lived, that is to say that if we’re trying to become happy through eating and drinking and doing drugs and things like that, well, yes, you can have a jolt of pleasure that’s quick. But then it tends to go away. So people that are Hedenists are unlikely, at least if Aristotle is right, to be able to have the deepest kind of friendship.
And, likewise, people that are focusing excessively on things like getting more money, more power, more fame, these goods, too, are the kind of goods that can deform us if we seek them excessively. So, obviously, everyone needs money to survive. I’m not talking about that. What I mean is a greedy person, who cares more about money than about people. So if we’re going to be the kind of person who has the best kind of friendship, we need to seek, you might say, the higher goods: goods like bonds, goods like virtues, goods of loving others and helping others, and try to avoid the kind of voices, you might say, of excessive love of money, excessive love of power, excessive love of pleasure.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you feel like our culture encourages this kind of friendship, or do you think it encourages a more surface kind of friendship if we’re watching movies and listening to music?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Yeah, I would say it’s a mix. I mean there are parts of our culture, I think, that do encourage virtue, and then there’s parts of our culture that definitely don’t. So I would say it’s kind of mixed. So if we look at advertising, most of that is appealing to you might say not the best part of ourselves. Right? They’re trying to sell products, and they’re trying to convince us that we need this to be happy, but I think there’s other parts of our culture that really do try to encourage us to be the best version of ourself. And so part of what we can do as individuals is choose our friends wisely and choose the kinds of cultural things we expose ourselves too, and if we choose wisely, that’s really going to go a long way to help us to have better friends and to become better people.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s get specific about you. Give us some personal examples, if you don’t mind. You said that when you read that list of three different kinds of friends, that you discovered that most of your friends were either utility friends or pleasure friends. So what did you do about that?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: That’s exactly right. So I read this text from Aristotle when I was a freshman in college, and I immediately thought about this guy I was friends with in high school. And our friendship was based on the fact that he had a driver’s license, he had a car. So freshman year I always did stuff with him and we did all kinds of things, but then when I was no longer a freshman, when I was a sophomore, I got a car and I got a license and I completely dropped him. I didn’t have any more contact with him at all. And I was driving around all of these other guys, and then the next year when they got their licenses, they dropped me. So this is exactly what Aristotle was talking about, and so I realized in a very clear way in my own life that I had been a friend of utility to this guy who drove me around, and then these people that I thought were my friends really weren’t my friends at all, they just wanted to be driven around. And they didn’t have a car and a license at that point.
So when I realized that, I thought, well, if I’m going to have better kinds of friends, I need to think more carefully not just about what I’m getting, as it were, out of the friendship, but what I could give to this friendship and what kind of person I am and what kind of person they are. And I think that it did help me. It helped me to move forward and helped me to grow. So that’s kind of partly why I wrote the article because I hope people can move forward and grow and have better friendships.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Did you join different clubs? Did you just look for people differently? What kind of very specific steps did you take when you look back?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Yeah, I did. I joined different groups, and I thought more carefully about what kind of people these were that I wanted to be friends with. So, yeah, in college I started writing for a college newspaper and hanging out with a different crowd. And I think it did make a difference. Some of these people I’m still in contact with now more than 30 years ago. To have a long-term friendship like that, it’s not based on, hey, we just get drunk every weekend and that’s the whole basis of our friendship. It has to be something deeper than that.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: There takes a little bit of courage here, as well, doesn’t there? Because if you find somebody or you find some other people that you’re like, wow, that’s a really cool person, it takes some courage to put yourself out there and invite them or insert yourself into your lives. I would imagine some people are a little shy to do that.
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: I think you’re totally right. In a way, it’s almost like a romantic relationship where if you want a friendship with somebody you may have to invite the person out to walk around the lake with you or do whatever. And so there is a vulnerability there where someone might say no thank you or whatever, you’re not my cup of tea. But I think just as in a romantic relationship, unless you take a certain venture, and a certain chance, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to have that kind of relationship. So, too, in a friendship, I think you’re right, you need to kind of expose yourself a little bit and talk about, you know, who you are really and do activities with people. And, hopefully, if you do that, over time you’re able to find the kind of people that you can become deep friends with.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So speaking of romantic relationships, do you think this kind of exercise when we’re starting to try to find deeper relationships with friends of the same sex are going to have some effect on our ability then to enter marriage in a stronger way?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Oh, I definitely think so. The research indicates that the best marriages are marriages in which the spouses are very good friends or even best friends. So most of married life is more like a friendship. You’re working together to cook dinner or to get the kids off to school or whatever it is, and so if you are very practiced at being a good friend and are used to supporting a friend and being the kind of person that really is a virtuous person to your friend, well, I think all of those habits will really translate into marriage and help you to be a better spouse. In fact, the research on marriage indicates that if you want to improve your marriage, it really isn’t about these huge, dramatic, grand, romantic gestures. The much more important are kind of everyday things. It’s really being a good friend that I think is the basis for a good marital relationship.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Yeah, I know I’ll have people sometimes ask me — young couples that are getting ready to get married, give me some advice — and I’m like always say please and thank you, and they look at you like, what? I’m like, you know, sometimes we forget we just need to be polite to each other.
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: I totally agree.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So what can we do. So say we’re in a family, and we notice that someone, either it’s our spouse or grandchildren or children, and we look at them and we’re like, gosh, they just don’t have a lot of deep friendships, they’re in social media all the time. Are there some ways that we, as caring family members, can encourage others to have these deep relationships?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: I think so, and I think maybe the best way is to try to be a real good friend to these family members. So, you know, to engage someone and to invite them where we can really deepen our bond with them and spend time listening to them, spend time asking them questions and getting to know them better. I think all of that is a way of being a good friend to them and really encouraging them in a way through our example to be a good friend to other people because I think people really do underestimate how important their own example is to others. I know this is true in a negative sense that if someone begins smoking, the likelihood that other people in their family will begin smoking goes way up. Or if someone stops smoking, the likelihood other people in their family will stop smoking goes way up. So we can really influence others a lot by our good example, and so if we want other people to strengthen their bonds of friendship we can take the lead in that and try to strengthen our own bonds of friendship with them, which can, in turn, have good effects for them.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What a great idea, and very doable. Thank you so much. Well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Dr. Christopher Kaczor, where can our listeners go to read your article, “Curing the Crisis of Real Friendship,” and follow your other work?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: Well, they can go to WordonFire.org, and the article is up there. And I have a bunch of other articles that are up three now or will be soon. So that’s one place they can look for my work, and then if they are interested in some of the books I’ve written they could go to a bookstore, Amazon online, and just Google my name, Christopher Kaczor, and they can see what they like.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great. Dr. Christopher Kaczor, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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