It’s also just a lot more interesting
As much as tonight’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would seem to prove otherwise, surrounding yourself with people you disagree with can actually offer you one of life’s keys to freedom and happiness.
It’s an idea Alexis de Tocqueville, a French diplomat, summed up (without the benefit of social science) nearly two centuries ago.
“Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action” of each of us “upon the other,” he reflected. One big reason for that? In our democratic age, “all things are unstable, but the most unstable of all is the human heart.” Spend enough time online on a lonely Saturday night, and you’ll probably agree: As important as it is to enjoy your own company, nourishing friendships is a kind of self care too.
For that reason, it’s sometimes easy to seek out friends only among those who seem safest to expose our real selves to—worries, vulnerabilities, and all. There’s nothing worse than setting out to make a friend with someone who might really be different from you, only to be slapped down, rejected, or merely misunderstood. Scarily enough, recent research has even suggested that as many as half the people you’d call friends don’t actually consider you to be their friend. Yet we also know that trying to force friendships is unhealthy, especially as one buzzed-about study observed, when the hostile nice guy in question is an ex.
If only the experts could prove that the risk of friendship isn’t worth the bother. But, of course, studies show the exact opposite. “Ever since researchers began to make links between loneliness and poor health about 25 years ago, the scientific literature on the value of friendship has exploded,” writer Emily Sohn noted in The Washington Post. “In a 2010 meta-analysis that combined data on more than 308,000 people across 148 studies, for example, researchers found a strong connection between social relationships and life span. The size of the effect rivaled that of better-known predictors of health, such as smoking and exercise.”
Raising the stakes even more, social science counsels us to recognize that clones don’t make the best friends. Experts generally conclude, according to Scientific American, that social diversity can offer a special kind of fitness exercise for our character, and not just in a morally self-congratulatory way. “Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”
Clearly, that doesn’t mean it’s time to break ties with those who are closest to you in identity as well as in intimacy. It just means that tight-knit affinity groups aren’t a silver bullet or perfect cure for what makes life the crazy, anxious, uncertain thing that it so often seems to be.
In times past, that reassuring link between identity and intimacy was frequently reinforced in friendships that arose from prior relationships defined by family, church, shared service, or the like. If that’s rarer today, we know we’ve actually reaped a benefit to a degree. On the whole, we enjoy a much greater freedom to seek out and forge friendships with people so different from us that we probably wouldn’t even have made their acquaintance in the old days. The trouble is that this freedom also helps heighten our felt risk of winding up even more lonely and isolated than we’re apt to feel already.
Fortunately, if social media (and dating apps) have taught us anything, it’s that much of life is more of a numbers game than we might assume. If people don’t do what we want, there’s usually a decent reason not to take it personally; a better fit may be found if we stay calm and open enough to keep looking. Life’s better fits might rarely include friends who think you’re living life all wrong. But Tocqueville’s philosophy and the experts’ research agree: For a good shot at a full and stable life, look for the kinds of friends who will continue to give you a surprising, challenging workout in your relationship—especially once we all make it to November 9.