2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The Nurture Assumption; No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

The Survival of Friendship

I am optimistic about human relationships — in particular, about friendship. Perhaps you have heard gloomy predictions about friendship: it's dying out, people no longer have friends they can confide in, loneliness is on the rise.

But friendship isn't dying out: it's just changing, adapting to the changes in the world. People are discovering different ways of getting together. It may be harder to find a bowling partner but it's easier to find someone to chat with, because there are many more ways to chat.

When I was a child, people with chronic illnesses were described as "shut-ins." Now a person can be shut in without being shut out. I have friends whom I know only through e-mail conversations but who are as dear to me as my college roommate and dearer by far than my next-door neighbor.

The desire to form and maintain relationships is one of the built-ins of human nature. Primates are social animals, and humans are the most social of all. An extravagant amount of mental capacity is devoted to relationships. We can recognize at a glance the faces of thousands of different people and, with equal ease, remember whether or not we like them. With a bit more effort, we can dredge up other useful information about most of them: their names or professions or where we met them. Throughout our lives we collect and store information about specific individuals, so that — just in case we ever run into them again — we will know how to act. We even store information about people we have never met and whose faces we have never seen.

Collecting people information is something we do without training and with no reward other than the enjoyment we get from doing it. We don't need a nudge from the conscious mind, telling us that the information may come in handy someday. But in fact it may come in handy. People we have never met before may be important to us in the future. They may become our trading partners or employers. They may become our lovers or our rivals.

Or they may simply become our friends.