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.