Lesson #391: Why We Have Friends

I’ve had a particularly social week, which is in part because the football season has started up again, in part because I started classes, and in part because it’s getting toward the end of summer and my friends and I are acutely aware of the declining number of 2014 outdoor drinking opportunities. I assure you, though, that this is a bit abnormal for me. I am, after all, an introvert. I really enjoy being without other people.

As a result of my insane amount of socialization in the past seven days, including dinner with a college friend who lives across town, but I rarely see because we (mostly) don’t run in the same social circles, I was thinking about the mechanism of friendship. Specifically how that developed. I understand why humans would seek out sexual relationships; that’s pretty self-evident. But friendships are less obvious. We don’t need each other anymore in the sense that we’re not reliant on one another to provide food or shelter or clothing, so I was curious as to how the instinct for developing and sustaining friendships has remained over the course of history.

Off I went to find the answer. And now that I have access to JSTOR again, I was able to find science! Basically, despite our modern physical independence from one another, friendships still have enormous, long-lasting psychological effects; friendships are good for our mental health and we seek them out as a result. They lower our stress levels and help us live longer. They can also help us find a mate. Historically speaking, once the Industrial Revolution hit and families dispersed (I have only a dozen friends who live in the city they grew up in. Of those, every single one of the non-North Americans has lived abroad for a time), friendships became a stand-in for extended families. In a good year, I see my immediate family twice in a 12-month span. But I see my friends weekly. Sometimes, like this week, more often than that. So calling your friends “the family you choose” isn’t really inaccurate. You keep your friends around because, like family, even though there’s no outright physical benefit (in that you don’t get something tangible like a chicken in return for being someone’s friend — although they do sometimes cook you dinner, so there’s that), the emotional benefits are necessary for our own happiness. No man is an island, right?

All of this and way more can be read in the article “The Evolutionary Origins of Friendship” by Seyfarth and Cheney, which was published in the January 2012 issue of the Annual Review of Psychology. If you have access to JSTOR, you can access it here.

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