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Five types of friendship

A good friendship has the power to change our lives—and it's never too late to make new ones.

Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton
October 28, 2020
6 min read

From a young age, one thing is made sharply clear to us: love is the purpose of existence; friendship is the paltry, depleted consolation prize. I’d like to politely, but forcefully disagree with that. 

If we were to judge love chiefly by its impact, by the extent of the tears, frustrations, and viciousness of the insults that unfold in its name, we might indeed mistake it for some sort of illness or aberration. Those we love, we honour with our worst moods, our most unfair accusations, our most wounding insults. It is to our lovers that we direct blame for everything that has gone wrong in our lives, it is they we expect to know everything we mean without bothering to explain it, it is to their minor errors and misunderstandings that we respond with sulks and rage. 

By comparison, in friendship, we bring our highest and noblest virtues. Here we are patient, encouraging, tolerant, funny and – most of all – kind. We expect a little less and therefore, by extension, forgive an infinite amount more. We do not presume that we will be fully understood, and so treat failings lightly and humanely. We don’t imagine that our friends should admire us without reserve and stick by us whatever we do, and so we put in effort and behave, pleasing ourselves as well as our companions along the way. We are, in the company of our true friends, our best selves.

The pursuit of friendship however, is often a most routinely disappointing reality. The key to the problem of friendship is found in an odd-sounding place: a lack of a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we resist developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for.

We’re unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. But, the more we can define it, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.

Five kinds of purposeful friendships:

1. Networking

We are small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours. Think of Jason and his Argonauts, or Jesus and his Disciples. Rather than diminish our own efforts as we hand out our business cards, such prestigious examples can show how elevated and ambitious networking friendships could be.

2. Reassurance

The human condition is full of terror. We are always on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of sexual compulsion, regret, rage and confusion. They refuse to admit that they too are going slightly out of their minds. Yet, the reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.

3. Fun

Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous.

That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.

4. Clarifying our Minds

To a surprising degree, it is very hard to think on our own. The mind is skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that helps us to know ourselves.

5. Holding on to the Past

A number of friends have nothing to say to whom we are now, but we keep seeing them, get a little bored in their company – yet are not wrong to retain them in our lives.

They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet to which we still remain loyal. They aren’t relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever entirely contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.

One side-effect of getting a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives is that we’re likely to conclude that, in many cases, we are spending time with people for no truly identifiable reason. These proto-friends share none of our professional ambitions or interests; they aren’t reassuring and may indeed be secretly really very excited by the possibility of our failure; we can’t be cathartically silly around them; they aren’t in the least bit interested in furthering our or their path to self-knowledge and they aren’t connected up with important phases of our lives. They are simply in our orbit as a result of an unhappy accident we have been too sentimental to correct.

We should dare to be a little ruthless. Culling acquaintances isn’t a sign that we have lost belief in friendship. It’s evidence that we are getting clearer and more demanding about what a friendship could, and should, be. 

In the end, you might even find yourself with a clearer mind, greater self belief and ultimately, better brain health as a result, which if you’re reading this, you’ll know, is what Heights is all about.

Who is Alain de Botton?

Swiss-born philosopher, Alain de Botton is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He also created and helps to run The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education.

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