Friends Are Not Vitamins

In the U.S. it has become fashionable to seek the number of friends that will do the most for your health. Numerous news articles, research summaries, and opinion pieces aim to help readers find their ideal number. Something is terribly wrong here; I recognize that friends can be good for my health, but I do not make or keep friends to boost my health. Many friendships are circumstantial and helpful, but that doesn’t mean I have to view them primarily in terms of what they do for me. I can at least try to consider the friend’s needs too, and the nature of the friendship itself.

Catherine Pearson’s recent New York Times article “How Many Friends Do You Really Need?” has a bit more subtlety than appears at first; toward the end, she suggests that soul-searching may help you more than research findings when it comes to determining the right number for you. She also suggests that different friends bring out different parts of you—so a question may be whether there’s a part of you that isn’t finding expression. Still, the the article generally presumes that we should be looking at our friends the way we consider our diet or exercise: Am I getting the right amount (and the right kind)?

This is wrong not only because quality matters more than quantity, and not only because people differ in their definitions of friendship and the kinds that they want or need. What the article entirely ignores is the responsibility of friendship. Instead of asking “Do I have the right number of friends?” a person might ask, “Am I good to my friends?”

The exercise of responsibility in friendship might do more good, in itself, than the mere collection of friends. Thinking of a friend, contacting a friend, accepting a friend’s invitation, helping a friend in need, speaking frankly and kindly to a friend, speaking well of a friend, giving a friend space—any of these acts takes attention and commitment (attention, moreover, to someone other than yourself). The article says nothing about this.

Also, the article, like many others in its vein, ignores solitude and what it can do for friendship. Solitude complements friendship in that you can bring something of one state to the other. I learned something from a friend; I bring it into my time alone. During my time alone, I read something, listened to something, considered something from a new angle; this I can bring into my friendship, directly or indirectly.

Solitude also helps a person handle the many levels and forms of friendship. Someone with whom you spend less time is not necessarily less important in your life. Pearson quotes research suggesting that friends need to spend about 200 hours together to be close—but there are important friendships that come nowhere near those hours. If you think you “should” be spending more time together, then you might reject the friendship for what it is. Solitude can give honor to the limits.

Pearson also suggests that friends we feel ambivalent about—for any number of reasons—might be bad for our health (and therefore worth dropping, presumably). That relates to the fad of cutting the “toxic” people out of your life. It is true that some people are so demanding, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed that they take the joy out of a friendship. But those are the extremes. Often an ambivalence is worth living with or working through, because all of us are imperfect. Sometimes a friendship needs time to find its proper form and rhythm; until then, it may go through some awkward bumps. That is not a reason to drop a friend.

I brought the Pearson article to my students, because I wanted to show them how to read it critically. First we read it together, just for meaning. Then I asked them to read it again and identify its underlying assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. Finally, I asked them whether they found any part of it questionable—that is, any of the assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. I stressed that questioning a part of it was not the same as dismissing or debunking it; the point was not to attack the article, but to identify which parts or aspects convinced them less than other parts. Their observations were keen; I hope to do something like this again.

In the U.S. there’s an obsession with continually boosting your personal numbers. There’s an assumption that you should always be on the up-and-up, whether with happiness, friendship, jobs, or anything else. Not only does this tend toward superficiality, but it also ignores the importance of rest: not just sleep and relaxation, but the act of letting something be.

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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