The Ingredients of Friendship

As I progress further and further into my late 20s, I’ve observed a steady, organic decline in the number of my close friendships.

This realization used to strike me as sad, but upon reflection, it feels appropriate and natural.

Unless you’re bonded by some recurring mutual interest or are part of the same social circle, it’s generally extremely hard to stay close friends with someone. The demands of adulthood are high and they push people to move to new cities, focus on their jobs, and spend more time with their loved ones.

The utility of having a very large number of friends seems to decline over time as you get older too. In adolescence, I felt more vulnerable to the notion of popularity, but its allure has really weakened over the years. And as I get older, time becomes scarcer and problems become more intricate, so it takes a lot more effort to be a good friend.

Most of my current good friends now are either my high school / college friends (who I didn’t have to put any effort into getting to know) or my work friends (who I didn’t have to put any effort into seeing).

Upon reviewing my current close friendships and the very few burgeoning new ones, I would say that there are three ingredients that are required to form a close friendship.

These ingredients are all intuitive, and I’d distill them as:

  • Organic Friend Development Time
  • Similarities and Shared Interests
  • Intent and Desperation

Organic Friend Development Time

I think there is a good chance that your best friend (aside from your significant other) is someone that you’ve either: lived with, sat next to at school, or worked with at some point.

It’s possible (and likely) that you’ve become really good friends with people who didn’t have those attributes. But I would guess that the person you think of when someone asks “Who is your best friend?” is someone that you’ve spent an absurd amount of time with.

The first ingredient underlying a strong friendship is lots of time spent together, specifically what I’ll refer to as Organic Friend Development Time.

The defining trait of Organic Friend Development Time is that the time spent together can’t feel too forced, rigid or stressful. The time spent together should feel playful or at the very least, facilitate non-judgmental conversation.

Common examples of Organic Friend Development Time include: recess, taking the school bus together, hanging out at a birthday party, or getting a drink after work. On the other hand, times like intensely typing at your computer while silently sitting next to each other might not qualify.

It takes many instances of grabbing lunch, drinking together, and complaining about the mundanity of your job before you feel like you can really trust someone.

There isn’t very great research available, but it’s been estimated that it takes 40-60 hours to develop a casual friendship. And I would estimate that I’ve probably spent 5-10x that amount of time with my closest friends.

This level of free time simply does not come naturally (or even artificially) to adults.

If it takes 40-60 hours to develop a new casual friendship, it could easily take a full year or so of hanging out every single weekend to become friends with someone new. And so, the startup cost for a new good friendship is extremely high.

Similarities and Shared Interests

It’s no surprise that you can spend tons of time with someone without ever becoming their friend, because a certain amount of commonality – some positive friendship slope – is still required to grow a relationship.

This intuition has been reinforced by research and anthropologic studies of social networks:

Social ties are forged at a higher-than-expected rate between individuals of the same age, gender, ethnicity, and other demographic categories. This assortativity in friendship networks is referred to as homophily and has been demonstrated across diverse contexts and geographic locations, including online social networks. Indeed, consistent evidence suggests that homophily is an ancient organizing principle and perhaps the most robust empirical regularity of human sociality.”

via Carolyn Parkinson (UCLA), in her paper “Similar neural responses predict friendships

It’s no surprise that people generally like people who think and act like themselves. That’s how groupthink forms so quickly!

Regardless of whether that commonality is a friend group, a hometown, or a shared hatred for your manager, some element of common ground is typically necessary to progress a friendship.

There’s a point in all conversations when small talk ends at which shared interests need to pick things up. I would say it’s about 5-10 minutes into a conversation.

I find that a shared sense of passion is often the quickest accelerator of a friendship. If you find someone who carries the same level of excitement as you about something, that first conversation feels like you’re already talking to a good friend.

Virtually all of my unexpected new friendships I’ve formed as an adult have been born out of a mutual interest (usually one of music production, basketball, or some kind of gambling…). There is definitely social value in having interests and hobbies.

Intent and Desperation

I think the third and potentially most important ingredient in friendship is intent and desperation.

If you and someone else are together in a lonely, undesirable situation, it might not matter if you have virtually nothing in common and have spent little time together.

The importance of intent is why so many relationships stall or never reach a point of real depth. Both parties need to put in effort to get to know one another (or be put into circumstances where it’s highly advantageous to have an ally).

I think a lot of male friendships never develop significant friendship depth because there tends to be an aversion to show vulnerability and to be emotionally dependent.

On the contrary, there are numerous examples of the power of intent and desperation.

I think a really funny example of the power of desperation is when you backpack through hostels. When you’re backpacking, the value of a potential friend is exceptionally high, because there’s a good chance that you’re alone and that you’re on one of your only weeks of vacation. I think that’s why people are so emotionally honest and willing to become friends while backpacking.

Another common example is in the workplace, especially if your company has bad culture. Even if all of your coworkers are extremely boring or insufferable, you will still probably make do and become friends with the one person you can tolerate the most, slowly rationalizing to yourself that they’re actually OK.

Other common examples of high desperation include:

  • After moving to a new city / school
  • After a breakup
  • After being ostracized from a friend group
  • At a family gathering where it’s all parents and there’s only one other kid within +/- 5 years of your age

So I suppose if you want to become fast friends with someone, you could probably look for people in these dire situations.

Friendships as an Adult

From this basic framework, what sticks out to me is the realization that most working adults generally will not have the time to passively forge a strong new friendship. Unless you go back to business school or join a cult, you simply won’t make lasting friends without putting in lots of sustained effort.

I predict that this phenomenon of declining # of friends will continue to worsen through my early 30s as my peer group starts to have children and the social utility of partying reaches a horizontal asymptote.

I have two takeaways:

  • We should really cherish our existing close friendships and continue to invest into them, because in many ways, they are irreplaceable. The number of people who genuinely like and understand you is finite and is probably quite small. One of the best parts of moving back to Toronto has been hanging out with my high school friends, because those friendships are fortified by years and years of co-dependency and inside jokes.
  • If we do want to make new close friends, a good place to start is probably by finding groups centered around our passions and hobbies. Then we need to make sure to put in continued, potentially unnatural effort to remain involved in each other’s lives.