The Value of Friendship

Prague Leaders Magazine, May 2009

“A friend is gift you give yourself”
– Robert Lewis Stevenson, Scottish writer

Friendship is indeed a gift, and a priceless one at that. And I would only be reiterating what many great minds have already said were I to try to describe the vitally important role that friendship plays in our lives. To paraphrase Cicero, the importance of friendship is the only thing in the world about which all mankind are agreed.

Having established the significance of friendship, I do often wonder if friendship is a gift that many of us sometimes take too much for granted. The fast pace of modern life seems to leave many people with little time for those closest them and friendship can often be perceived as either a luxury (i.e. it is time consuming but doesn’t yield any tangible result) or a burden (i.e. friends can sometimes be quite demanding).

Certainly, our collective obsession with work and career can often lead us to neglect our relationships with friends and family members. Not only can the desire for professional success put a strain on our most important relationships, it also leads us to put less meaningful professional relationships ahead of personal friendships.

While there is nothing wrong with aspiring for professional success and developing a network of business contacts, I have come to appreciate the well known fact that at the end of our lives, no one ever regrets not having spent more time in the office. Of course, practically everyone would have liked to have spent more time with friends and loved ones.

Nevertheless, friendship has come to be less and less significant in recent years and a host of studies have shown that friendship is an increasingly elusive phenomenon in western culture. According to an article published in USA Today in 2006, Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants that they did just two decades ago. Citing a study in the American Sociological Review, the newspaper article noted that Americans may be living lonelier, more isolated lives than in the past. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam supports the findings of this study by showing how people in the United States have become increasingly disconnected from family and friends. To make this point, the American political scientist uses the decline in participation in bowling leagues as a metaphor for the gradual weakening in social capital over the last quarter century.

Part of the reason for this notable decline in the perceived value of friendship maybe related to technology, which paradoxically has made it much easier to connect with people via email and applications like Facebook and Skype, but which also keep us at home, often choosing to nurture virtual relationships over face-to-face friendships. Undoubtedly, computer technology and the television are playing a far greater role in mediating the way we interact with people. Movie rentals long ago replaced the popularity of a card game with friends as home entertainment with friends.

While I do believe that this steady decline in the value we place on friendship is not a figment of my imagination, I do have a suspicion that the global economic slowdown could be playing a role in reversing this trend. Perhaps it is only my wishful thinking, but maybe this economic crisis is teaching us that there are things more valuable than a corner office and the latest home entertainment center? Humbled by forces beyond our control, are we now coming to realize that friends are the best marker we have for success in life?

Whether or not my hypothesis is true, there are certainly some very good reason for placing a greater value on friendship. Beyond the enjoyment that come with spending time with people we care about, our friends provide us with an important support network for more difficult periods in our lives. Whether we are going through the loss of a job, a divorce, or the death of a loved one, the support that a good friend provides can be invaluable to overcoming even life’s greatest tragedies. While it is easy to maintain a relationships with people when the going is good, it is usually in times of loss, adversity, and misfortune where we find out who our real friends are.

Interestingly, those friends that stand by us in good time and in bad do more than just help us get over life’s difficulties. Several studies have shown that friends not only help improve the quality of our lives, but also keep us healthy and living longer. In 2006, a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. A study carried out by Australian researchers and published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that having friends around in old age can do more for life expectancy than having family members around. Other research has found that people who do not enjoy a strong social network are 2 to 3 times more likely to die at a young age than those who have this kind of support. Like regular exercise and a balanced diet, maintaining meaningful friendships is a proven way to improve health, prevent disease and extend life.

Having lived and worked on two different continents I have been blessed with many beautiful friendships. But it wasn’t until I moved into the Czech Republic that I fully understood that how friendship often means different things to different cultures.

I have always admired the Czechs for the reasonable balance they strike between work and play, and for always finding time to spend with friends. My experience living the here has shown me that friendship occupies a very special, and somewhat exclusive place in the Czech value system. While it may take some time to befriend a Czech, once the friendship has been established, it is a relationship that can be relied on. Of course, for that friendship to grow, the trust and steadfastness of the relationship must be reciprocated equally. Perhaps because of the country’s history or the down-to-earth nature of the Czech people, I find that the notion of friendship is taken very seriously in this country. And finding new friends in any country is not always easy. While Americans for example, are often easy-going and friendly when first meeting someone, finding a friend for life in that country is no easier than anywhere else.

As a child, making friends is often perceived as easy as borrowing a colored pencil. As we grow older, our friendships can take a back seat to our technologically driven lifestyles and busy schedules. We become so caught up in our family and job obligations that we put friendships aside and lose some of the most important relationships in our lives.

Having said that, its important to always bear in mind that it’s often our friends who are best able to keep our feet on the ground when the world around us is spinning out of control. And it is during life’s most challenging times when we are most desperately in need to engage in real communication, feel the need to be heard and understood by someone we can call a friend.