The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Mark: It has been noted that America is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness.  

Ever since Robert Putnam authored the book entitled “Bowling Alone,” numerous researchers and demographers have released studies highlighting the erosion of communal institutions— religious communities, fraternal organizations, social clubs, and, yes, even bowling leagues—all of which created a myriad of opportunities for human interaction and sustained contact. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article relates similar findings regarding the building of friendships. The results suggest that four in 10 Americans claim to be without a single true friend! The article details the critical component of establishing a meaningful friendship was two hundred hours of sustained encounters, experiences, interactions, and communication. 


Frank, as someone who has had the good fortune of retaining several lifelong friendships, while also creating multiple new ones along the way, what do you make of this epidemic of loneliness and the similar difficulties so many are facing, living a life without many, or even any, friendships? 


Frank: Mark, the absence of friends in one’s life is a serious problem and yes, I have been blessed with good friends some of whom I met in kindergarten and have maintained a close and nurturing relationship for an exceptionally long time. A lack of good friends has led many to a lonely existence which has often led to serious depression.  


The question is why our society is so filled with lonely people and what can be done about it.  


The why is not an easy question to answer but I believe, to a large degree, it is social media that keeps people from a one-on-one interaction leading to an isolated life filled with communication that only allows for a mobile phone relationship. Whatever the cause, there is a need to encourage people to put the making of good friends high on their list of priorities.  


In 350 BC the Greek philosopher Aristotle listed three types of friendships: 


The first he labeled as the “friendship of utility,” which was the kind of friend you find convenient to have in your life. These are the people you work and play with without getting to know each other deeply. 


The second type of friendship he calls the “friendship of pleasure,” and this is the friend in your life whom you spend most time with at lunches, dinners, sporting events and social outings, to name a few. This type of friend is one with whom you may spend casual time, and even share many of your feelings, but the relationship never evolves into something more serious.  


The last type, which Aristotle calls the “friendship of the good” is one that is quite rare in life. This type of friendship is one in which you become soul mates, understanding each other at a fundamental core, and this is the friend with whom you express some of your innermost thoughts and feelings. There is nothing that you would not discuss with the friend of the good. There is true respect, trust, and acceptance of this type of friend with an element of love intertwined. We are lucky if we have just a few of these types of friends. 


Mark: Frank, what is so sad is that so many people today have none of these kinds of friends. The Surgeon General refers to this as an epidemic of loneliness 

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I think you are onto something when you reference the impact of social media on such a large swath of society. We are all guilty of participating in this to some degree or another. We text in lieu of having an actual person to person conversation. We highlight only the most happy and exciting images of our lives, which can make others feel as though they can neither relate nor respond in equal measure or share equivalent lives of pleasure. And most importantly, we substitute the importance of engaging with a community of meaning with online presence that creates and sustains a strong and increasing sense of isolation. 


It is no surprise that so many of our communal institutions are no longer strong nor even sustainable in some cases. Friendship involves human interaction, a shared sense of belonging or purpose, and an ability to be at once vulnerable and empathetic to others.  


What do you think? 


Frank: I totally agree. It is troubling to learn how so many have stopped becoming affiliated with their religious houses. Becoming a member of a church or synagogue is a wonderful way to meet others and to feel a part of a community. That is certainly what I feel every time I attend a function at The Temple or in any other gathering of the Jewish community. I feel as if I am with friends and family. 


A large and reputable study has shown that families who have someone with a disability (and loneliness can be disabling), have higher quality life scores if they are affiliated with a church or synagogue when compared with similar families that are not affiliated with a religious house of worship. Living an affiliated Jewish life is one effective way to make friends that start with friends of utility, often leading to friends of pleasure, and with luck, finding a few who can be called friends of the good. 


Mark: Frank, what you are talking about is the strength offered by communities of faith, although they can really be any organization that allows for sustained interaction between the participants. Such communities of meaning require some significant investments of time, focus and active participation.  


They require one to show up, not just to meet one’s own needs, but even more, for the needs of others within that community or congregation. Friendship emerges from these encounters because of a shared level of caring and commitment to the value of each individual and every relationship.  


The old adage remains true today: The best way to make a friend is to be one. It does not have to be that hard: Show some interest in another human being and share some vulnerability in the sharing of yourself. You will not only enrich your life with friendships; you will enrich someone else’s life as well. 


Rabbi Mark Schiftan can be reached at 

Dr. Frank Boehm can be reached at