The Economics of Friendship: paying for what we value and wasting time on crap

Photo by Marco Xu on Unsplash

The things we value enough to pay for — whether in cash, our reputation (social capital) or spending our precious time — are all part of an ‘economy’. And in an economy, every decision which requires you to choose one thing over another results in an opportunity cost of all the other things you could have bought or spent time on instead of the thing you chose.

It would be fair to say that if you asked people about their priorities in life — those things they really value and cherish — and rank them according to importance, most people…

1. Rate their family and their friends at the very top of that list

2. Passions and hobbies would be up there

3. Health would rate highly for most

4. And some people lucky enough to work in a job they love may add career in the top 5 too.

If you asked those same people how they spend their time day to day and week to week, it tells a very different story of what they value and the opportunity costs of those decisions. It is this theme of time as currency, how we spend it and with whom that has been reappearing as a theme for my last few years. I am increasingly interested in the costs, benefits, deficits and surpluses in what must surely be the most fundamental aspect of our lives as members of an innately social species. Through observations, many conversations, interrogations, and some impromptu research I have formed this notion of an Economics of Friendship.

And so, some food for thought….

In the largest study of human values ever done, indeed Australians did rate family, friends, and leisure time as the 3 most important factors in life. In an Economy where time and effort is the currency,

· you probably spend anywhere between 30–45% of all the hours in a week at work and commuting to/from work, whether you love your job or hate it.

· Sleep, which is essential to good health, consumes about 30% of your time,

· while around 10% goes to general ‘life admin’.

· Even the most dedicated hobbyists might spend 5% of total hours on their passion,

· and beyond immediate, co-habiting family or share-mates, you probably give about 2% total time per week to one or more (but almost certainly not all) of your family, friends, acquaintances and other people you’re connected to in a social way.

The stuff we say we value
A representation of how we spend our time

It takes approximately 30 seconds to write and send a text, and the average phone call lasts less than 2 minutes, but this tiny sliver of time in one’s day is a cost too great for an increasing number of people due to series of factors; most notably the huge expense of busyness in their daily lives. Recently I did a vox pop with 23 of my own friends and acquaintances to gauge

how often they keep in touch and stay connected with their friends

and the results were startling to me, if a little sad. Most people said (in order of the frequency of responses)…..

1. 2–3 times a year (6)

2. Once a month (5)

3. Every 6 weeks — two months (4)

4. Once a week (3)

5. Once a year (2)

6. 6–9 months (2); Once a fortnight (1)

And the reasons?

“I am hopeless in keeping in touch”

“The reality is that everyone is fairly busy”

“I can be a hermit so I need to work on getting out more”

“If your question is about day to day support then I guess [I’m not looking to friends] to fulfil [my] emotional needs.”

“I think the low level of effort required in social media is insufficient to build a real friendship, but can be enough to maintain one.”

“I have gotten used to doing without [emotional support]”

“Life/ technology/expectations impact unfortunately.”

“I’ve many friends overseas”

“Family is important to me, it’s probably stronger than current friendships”

It would seem it doesn’t matter how much technology avails us, there is no app for keeping in touch with the people we cherish. Like any investment, it takes time, energy, cognitive function, emotional security. But as modern day humans living in cities, we have limited resources to spend on all the different options vying for attention.

Robin Dunbar has proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships, and between 4 and 5 close relationships. So if your economy resembles the bustling market I’m in, it means that any one individual friend will receive roughly 0.002% of your time per year. Combining the expenditure on all your friendships, your Friendship Economy will look a lot like this.

As far as balanced and stable economies go, this graph would indicate most people are not utilising their resources efficiently to live optimally. Time is expensive and finite, and most of us are not spending it in the ways that align most strongly with our stated values and priorities. It’s no wonder we’re anxious and lonely. Not that we’re talking about the ‘L word’ much, but we should be because it’s a public health crisis.

What is the cost of this deficit in the Economics of Friendship?

In her talk, Sophie Andrews, the founder of The Silver Line telephone helpline service, says “The stigma that’s there today is to talk about loneliness. Loneliness and isolation have profound health impacts. Being lonely can have a significant impact on your own well-being. Recent systematic review of research actually said that it increased the mortality rates, or premature death rates, by up to 30 percent.”

“Feeling like the quality of your relationships isn’t optimal is a risk factor for a wide variety of health problems, including cardiovascular issues”, says Dr. Lisa Jaremka, Ph.D. However, a “recent study broke new ground in finding connections between social isolation and cognitive functioning.”

Yes! You read that right. If you feel like the quality and the quantity of relationships you have is not aligned with the depth and number you want, your memory and concentration is likely suffering, and your brain is at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The OECD Better Life Index reminds us that health is one of the most important things to people. Good health “brings many other benefits, including enhanced access to education and the job market, an increase in productivity and wealth, reduced health care costs, good social relations, and of course, a longer life.”

So then, the costs of operating non-optimally in the ‘Friendship Economy just got real. Even if you personally don’t feel lonely, 60% of Lifeline’s Loneliness Survey respondents said that they often do. With that kind of dominant market share I’m deeming Loneliness a monopoly empire.

It would be convenient to assume it’s mostly single people living alone or away from family who are skewing the numbers. In fact, only between 10–15% of Aussies are in lone person households. Lifeline’s CEO, Pete Shmigel reported that in fact many people that do have close support networks “feel unable or unwilling to seek help from loved ones in their own homes.” You may wonder how that is possible, and I’m here to propose it’s because of the enormous cost burden of our busy modern lives. The opportunity costs incurred by making ‘sensible, pragmatic, responsible’ choices like doing overtime at work or buying a family home a 75 minute commute away, leaves most people unable to pay for the things they actually want in their lives. That tension between what you want and what you can afford adds further stress on relationships.

The upfront costs of ploughing time into friendships is significant, and people can be reluctant to spend.

“Sometimes I feel a call might be imposing.”

“I only have expectations from my partner but not much from my friends.”

“I would be under the impression that my friends are able to fulfil emotional needs outside of friendships as long as they actually do something about it.”

But the remedy to loneliness can send you bankrupt. Requesting more time and energy from others because you feel lonely and disconnected can be just as socially awkward and unwelcome as asking someone for money. There’s deep shame in admitting you don’t have enough to look after yourself, and sometimes you can even lose friends over it.

“Connection is not a measure of contact or time spent for me. In fact, if I felt this was required of me — i.e an obligation — I would likely let go of the relationship.”

“I guess try to keep in touch as much as possible…It can be a bit difficult…a true friend would understand [if I’m too busy]”.

“People don’t want to feel friendship comes with responsibility or obligation.”

“I can’t be friends with people who hold too many expectations on me or want me to be a certain way.”

It would seem it’s everyone for him or herself, and just like in a welfare society, those who need a little more help than others to fulfill their emotional needs are considered an economic burden; the ‘leaners’. Recalling Dunbar’s Number, if each person can only afford 4–5 close relationships, then somebody who costs a little more in demands on our time or attention will inevitably get cut in the next budget. The lonely get lonelier when they only seek to have their basic needs met.

The Black Market

As with all economies, there also comes a shadow economy, a black market. There too in the Economics of Friendship is a thriving underbelly. Companionship from the opposite sex, paid by the hour to ladies of the night. Anecdotally, prostitutes are hired roughly 70% of the time just for companionship with no sex act taking place. In this case, a significant number of Johns are spending $350+/hour just to have a kind, non-judgemental, compassionate ear. Counselling probably costs less, but then that wouldn’t feel like a friend so a surprisingly large number of men rent-a-friend. Who would have thought that in the year 2018 as ultra-connected, digitally primed humans we would need a commodity trade in friendship because the not-for-profit sector isn’t doing it right.

How to earn more in this economy

Would you rather have more time or more money? “Although the majority of people chose more money, choosing more time was associated with greater happiness”. The value placed on each resource is what really matters. This is what researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found when they asked thousands of people that simple question. Life is filled with choices and decisions need to be made. How you choose and what you decide comes with costs and consequences no matter which option you take, but every day you have the power to live more aligned with your priorities and the things you really value.

As for my own marketplace, I’ve always known I’m a bit different from most people when it comes to my expressions of friendship and the amount of giving (‘spending’) I’ll do to cultivate, nurture or even rekindle a relationship with a friend. My current circumstances mean I have more free time than the average waged employee working full time, and the effects of that are noticeable. I send texts in the middle of the day, I lunch with old colleagues, I hand make birthday gifts, I host regular dinners with friends, I deliver food baskets to neighbours, I call people for no reason, and at times I’m on social media a LOT! All of that is to say, in the Friendship Economy I am both wealthy and wise. Oh how the other half live!

Reframing what we value — a world which is just, sustainable, and works for all people and planet Earth. Join the conversation!

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