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ICA TALK Friendship in the Digital Age I’ve come here straight from Labour party conference in Bournemouth. Where everyone was being very friendly, in anticipation of an imminent election. Except, as you may have read, my old boss, Peter Mandelson, who antagonised the Brown camp with his comments on the Today programme. It reminded me of when he and Gordon first fell out and Gordon would delight in telling the following joke: “Peter Mandelson asked me to lend him 10p today so he could phone a friend”. I said, “Here’s 20p. Phone them all”.
Politics is a hard place to make real friends. But friendship is vitally important to us. Yet the field of psychology sees it as a fringe issue. There are some great books – some written by people here. But go into a bookshop and scan the self-help shelves and you will see dozens of books on achieving success, finding romance, feeling good but barely a single title on building friendships.
Yet friendship is vitally important to us. Studies have shown that friendships increase our well-being. In Lord Layard’s recent book “Happiness” he places “friendships and community” fourth in his list of the “Seven big factors that promote happiness”. Good friendships are more important to us than money, fame or success. They are vital to successfully navigating the emotional storms of adolescence. Having good relationships allows us to: • Make faster progress in our careers • Earn more money • Be less unemployed • Be more physically healthy
In fact, according to several studies, they literally keep us alive longer.
Indeed, one UCLA research project found that those without close ties are two to three times more likely to die as those with good relationships.
All this, of course, isn’t a new insight. 300 years before Jesus was born Epicurus said, “Of all the
means that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship”. It is age-old wisdom, backed up by the latest scientific studies – but it is something that, as I am going to suggest, we are forgetting at our peril.
First, though I want to address the issue of internet networking. My main point of reference is Facebook, which I joined because I was asked to speak here. And I am so glad I did. I’ve reconnected with several long lost friends and am now exploring all the phenomenon has to offer – though I have to say I don’t find it particularly user friendly to a beginner. It is certainly all around us, though:
Several people said, when I asked for their cards at Labour conference – see it’s not just Carol that does that – “Oh, I don’t carry them anymore, I’m on Facebook” The editor of the Spectator has just run a poll of all his friends asking when the election will be; and the Daily Telegraph are using it to build support for the ridiculous, spurious EU referendum (sorry, just a bit of politics, I’m still decompressing from Bournemouth).
All good stuff, though.
So much so, that I’ve concluded that the mild media hysteria over cyber-relationships is a red herring. First, because I don’t think that for the vast, vast majority of people these sites are replacing face-toface friendships, I think they are tools to manage and enhance them; Secondly because they actually fill a deep-seated psychological need that could never be filled by “real” friendships anyway. In our history we used to live in groups of 50,100, 150 people at most. Modern life has obliterated this sense of stable community. I think that Facebook and the rest are actually a new way of living in a village, where you’d be on chatting or nodding acquaintance with about that number of people. I expect we will still end up with our typical, average number of 5 real friends and just enjoy our virtual village on top of that.
Now some people, of course, don’t have good friendships. It is more of a problem in therapy than you might expect. Although it is often not mentioned, and needs to be teased out by the therapist. It is vital work because if you cannot form supportive, respectful, nurturing relationships with other people you certainly won’t be able to form one with yourself.
Our external world of what analysts call “objects” – people and things - reflects, almost totally, our internal world of objects. What we build or attract outside reflects what we are on the inside. Indeed the word intimacy stems from the Latin intimus, meaning inner or inmost. Depression, anxiety, narcissism, attachment disorders all effect our ability to make and keep friends, and I would love to see the therapy, psychology and self-help world offer more. I know that echoes some of the work others here are doing.
But as well as our own private, personal worlds being hurdles to good friendships I think there is a cultural issue too. And it overlaps and meshes with the concerns that are voiced about digital “friendships”. Good relationships require: • commitment, • work,
Yet we face a world where we are surrounded by stimulants: at work and play.
TV, music, video, mobiles, e-mails, blackberries, shopping, magazines, billboards, advertising, text messages, pornography, advertising, rampant consumerism, drink, drugs, exercise, etc. etc. Facebook can be another stimulant on that list. But it is just a reflection of a world in which seeking shallow, passing pleasures seems to be encouraged, and deeper, richer pastimes are falling away. Both because it provides such a pastime in itself – that halcyon feeling of “just hanging out” and because it provides companionship when we are doing these other things, friendship – just like community, self-reflection and spirituality – is getting squeezed out of our lives. And then we wonder why we feel disconnected and miserable.