review of Adam Smiley Poswolsky's book Friendship in the Age of Loneliness

[Warren Buffett's] number one measure for success in life is "Do the people you care about love you back?"

This book is a grab-bag of suggestions for cultivating and enjoying relationships. If you feel like you don't have enough close friends in your life and want a systematic guide for fixing that, I'd recommend Platonic (review) instead. But there are some neat ideas here too.

The most thought-provoking chapter for me was about communal living. Smiley describes life in his "twelve-person co-living house":

One Saturday night before I went out, I was having a snack with a friend, and then my housemate's friend came over, and my other housemate's friend showed up. The conversation went from inequalities in public speaking to working in refugee camps to how VR is being used for transformative psychedelic experiences.

People always just seem to "show up" at the Manor, like they just arrived out of thin air and appeared in the kitchen to have a snack, but they are always lovely, interesting people and the conversations we have always leave me thinking more deeply.

That's what living in a dorm and later a shared house at college felt like for me, and I think Smiley pinpointed what made the experience so magical. When you live with enough other people in a decent space, you continually have natural, low-pressure opportunities to socialize. When you're lonely, you don't have to make plans, you just wander into the living room. And you can choose how much you want to engage: you can sit and read while your roommates do other things, occasionally looking up to share a joke; you can listen in on their conversations with their friends, and join the discussion if it turns to a topic you care about. I miss this a lot. After college, I avoided having roommates—I like privacy and quiet and not having to negotiate stuff like cleaning with other people. But perhaps in exchange for that independence I gave up something more valuable.

Moving into a community is like a warm blanket covering parts of your body that you didn't even know were freezing.

Smiley seems to place a lot of blame on social media for drawing people away from genuine connection. And he's got some evidence for that:

In my interviews with hundreds of millennials about their friendships, I found that there was a direct correlation between the number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers someone had and the lack of deep friendships they felt they actually had in their life.

This doesn't resonate with me personally. Social media in general and Facebook in particular have added a lot to my life, with usually-small downsides.1 I suspect (speculatively) one factor in Smiley's more negative perspective on it might be that his occupation—a speaker, and founder of an organization that helps people become speakers—is highly dependent on his social network and his personal brand. I get the impression that he exists within a world where work and personal life are very intertwined. Social media probably takes on a different flavor when there’s no strong distinction between activity that represents yourself and activity that represents your business. (Of course, plenty of people who aren’t in that situation have problems with social media, too.)

Miscellaneous quotes and ideas I liked:

  1. Twitter is the only one I've felt the need to quit—its tendency to reward tribalism, aggression, dismissiveness, and belittlement eventually became hard for me to cope with—and my mood improved a lot after I did so. But even Twitter had been a net positive for me for years. ↩︎