We Can Be Happy with Ordinary Friends

People often idealize friendship, talking about true friends and soul mates with whom deep and lasting relations abide and in whom true sympathy resides. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that way in 1841 in an essay on “Friendship.” He describes friendship as a high-minded, God-given relationship between persons.

Writing in January on our blog, Later Living, I took a more practical tack, speaking of friendship as human companionship offering goodwill and affection; writing that friendships make people healthier and help them live longer, and that to make friends retirees need to join activities with other people.

Is Emerson’s a more helpful view—one that leads to a healthier or more fulfilling later life?

Emerson on Friendship

Emerson begins by extolling affection as important to everyone, then posits that friends are more than sources of affection: they are a gift of God. Further, the God residing in us and our friends breaks the walls of individual character and makes us one.

He admits such ideal friendships are rare because we usually aim at a “swift and petty benefit”* instead of seeking friends “sacredly.” As people debase friendship in favor of expediency, they grow tired of an impure relationship and soon seek solitude.

“When friendships are real, they are … the solidest things we know,” he wrote. In real friendships, there are coequal elements, and one is truth. In truth, friends stand to one another in “simplicity and wholeness.” Friends are without pretense and dissimulation; we see our own divinity “reiterated” in a friend, “so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”

The second element is tenderness or love. Emerson deplores friendships that “signify modish and worldly alliances.” Real friendship is with us through all circumstances of life and death, through “serene days” as well as “shipwreck, poverty and persecution.” The love of a friend is “only the reflection of a man’s own worthiness from other men.” Friendship is not a partial or specialized relationship. We receive from friends “not what they have but what they are.”

Finally, “The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.”

By the time Emerson had published “Friendship,” he was about 38 years old and an established American intellectual advocating an American viewpoint. He made a living as a lecturer and writer, and he also received income from a substantial inheritance left by his first wife, who died in 1831.

A More Ordinary View

Back in mid-January I published “A Secret to Living Longer and Happier—Friends”. It described how Americans make friends in middle life, largely through work, children, church, civic organizations, and hobbies. Retirees needed to realize that friendships are usually specialized or functional and often fade away as life’s circumstances change. The post argued that in later life, if retirees are to make and have friends, they need to mimic the model of middle life—they need to “engage in activities with other people, and extend to them [their] best attributes: goodwill, affection, and maybe a little humor.”


Emerson would likely hold those modest views of friendship in disdain. The post said nothing of seeing God in friends and nothing of finding wholeness in friendships. It didn’t burden friendships with truth and it didn’t look for deification. It advocated companionship, implicitly though not expressly recognizing that such friendships would be tainted by human frailties and foibles.

Emerson’s essay reflects the views of a man trained in religion and engaged continually in intellectual affairs. Although earning a good income from his inheritance and his fees, he was still pushing his way through middle life.

In later life, after a career, after children are grown, friendships can be hard to find and keep. Of course soul mates or long-term friends who share most of life’s interests and concerns are surely valuable and will be treasured. In modern America such friendships are rare, and one wonders if such rarity was any different in the 1840s.

Perhaps the only danger in affirming Emerson’s ideas of friendship is that it may induce people to denigrate more common acquaintances. Emerson himself does that when he speaks of people seeking “swift and petty benefit” from would-be friends, or seeking friendship with “an adulterate passion.” The self interest that so many use to guide a search for acquaintances is useful and wholesome,so long as it is not so corrupted as to become selfishness. Most people accept a friend whose shared interests prompt mutual benefit.

Among retired men and women, with so much of life settled and fixed, Emerson’s high-mindedness is of little interest. Friendship is a practical concern of companionship, often involving specialized interests. These ordinary human exchanges are worthy and offer great comfort and enjoyment. A fishing trip, some time at lunch, a shared volunteer assignment at church—these are the friendships that occupy so many people and likely prolong lives. Most of the time, these are the friendships that matter.


* Quotes from Emerson can be located by accessing an online text of Friendship, then searching for the quoted material.

5 thoughts on “We Can Be Happy with Ordinary Friends

  1. Warren,
    Could you be talking about the need for social relationships and acquaintances when Emerson was describing close friendship? I believe that the difference between the two is quite large indeed.
    Studies, the few that I am aware of, that find a connection between longevity and “friendship” are very general and do not make any distinctions about the type of human relationship being considered. They appear to find out that there is a need for human relationship but say nothing about the depth of that relationship. I guess that I do not feel very comfortable with these conclusions because they seem to be too general by painting any person that you know a a friend.

    • Ghassan,
      Most of the research I’ve seen is based on more casual friendships than Emerson describes, but more committed than “any person you may know.” If you go to lunch with a friend frequently, if you meet friends for bowling each week or month, if you ride motorcycles with a group of friends during the spring, summer, and fall—these are the relationships that matter to our happiness.

      To me, Emerson’s friendships are so rarified, so sublime, as to be nearly nonexistent. He is not alone in describing friends in so high-minded a way. Cicero and Aristotle also wrote in similar ways, though they were not monotheistic like Emerson.

      The high-minded, ideal strands of thinking about friendship still exist today. I hear people lament over not having “really good friends, the kind of friend I can share anything with, a friend who will be with me through thick and thin.” It doesn’t seem to me that many of us have many such friends. Maybe family?

      I guess I’m urging us to be realistic about friendships. We need to understand that they are imperfect, specialized, and often time limited. So we need to work on making new ones, but we should not expect to find an “Emerson friend.” Those are rare indeed.

      Does that clarify my view? (I need to go out of town tonight, but will be back in two days. I can write again then if you want to add.)

      Thanks for your interest and comment. As always, you’re challenging.


      • Well, I just took a minute to check if Emerson was really monotheistic, and I guess that’s not so clear. Should have checked, then written, instead of the other way around. Warren

  2. Warren,
    It would be difficult to argue that any of the Transcendentalists was monotheist. I don’t think that monotheism is compatible with the views articulated by Emerson and “Saint Henry” Thoreau. I would imagine that one would categorize them as pantheists or maybe even panentheists. For many that value nature the triumph of Christianity over paganism was a disaster. (Lynn White called Christianity ” the most anthropocentric of all religions”.
    I am as guilty as any person in using the term friend to describe a person that I Barely know but who happens to work at the same company, go to the same church or even golf occasionally together. My own personal test of a friend is simple: Can I sit with that individual at a side walk cafe for over half an hour without feeling the urge to start any conversation. Very few people pass that test but I can sit for long periods of time , with some good friends, without ever feeling the urge to say anything. Unfortunately very few of these people live in the neighbourhood:-)

  3. Hi Warren,
    I am 81 and I have gone out of my way to make new friends in their 50’s and 60’s who enjoy my company and I certainly enjoy being with them. The happiest business in all the world is that of making friends and no investment pays larger dividends. Ann Eaton, “The Business of Friendship” 1933.
    Some people come into our lives and quietly go. Others stay awhile, make footprints in our heart and we are never the same.

    Best regards,
    Sunie Levin

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