“Without friends,” Aristotle wrote in his Ethics, “no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” Friendships afford us an “opportunity for beneficence,” Aristotle tells us. They give us a refuge from misfortune and poverty. They steer the young away from error and “minister to [the] needs” of the old. Friends lead us toward noble actions, and acting nobly goes hand in hand with a eudaimonic—a truly happy—life.
Can the same be said of our Facebook friends?
Maybe some of them. Probably not all, or even most. (More on how to tell who is who in a minute.) Aristotle says friendships come in three flavors. There are friends who bring you “pleasure”, others you befriend because they provide some “utility” to you and a rare third category of friends who earn that title due to their good character.
Having a ton of friends (surprise surprise!) is no guarantee of a happy life. For Aristotle, it may even be a sign of trouble:
[F]riends in excess of those who are sufficient for our own life are superfluous, and hindrances to the noble life; so that we have no need of them. Of friends made with a view to pleasure, also, few are enough, as a little seasoning in food is enough.
So adding more and more friends to your Facebook roster is like dumping an entire jar of paprika on your eggs or unloading a bottle of Sriracha on your Vietnamese sandwich. This goes for your higher, nobler “perfect friendships” too:
Presumably…it is well not to seek to have as many friends as possible, but as many as are enough for the purpose of living together; for it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people. This is why one cannot love several people; love is ideally a sort of excess of friendship, and that can only be felt towards one person; therefore great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people.
What does this mean for your ever-expending list of Facebook “friends”? Should you become more discerning about your e-relationships? Should you, as one non-Facebook friend of mine does, limit her online friendships to twelve? And if you start to winnow your list, which of your friends should make the cut?
It turns out there’s an app for that. There is persuasive research showing that happy online friends can have a measurable difference on your happiness quotient. This button will take you to a Time story where you can find out which of your friends are posting happy thoughts and who are the big downers:
The app looks only at your top 25 Facebook friends, and it is not quite foolproof. The app is deaf to sarcasm, for one. So negative words said disingenuously or in jest will fly under the radar. (This distortion may be especially pronounced for wise guys like me.) Still, there appears to be some value to the scan:
While it is blind to context and does not understand sarcasm, this method has been empirically shown to correlate to the emotional content of a written message. (This system, known as Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, is a technology pioneered by a researcher at the University of Texas.)
My scan revealed some curious tidbits, some more reassuring than others. On the upside, my spouse is officially my happiest-posting friend, with an 84% ranking (70 positive status updates, 13 negative). Less happily (for her, and maybe for me), my own 63% quotient places me near the bottom of my pile of friends, with only 6 of 25 friends having lower scores. I’m not sure what exactly I should do with this information, if anything, but Aristotle’s advice seems apt:
[I]t would seem that we ought to summon our friends readily to share our good fortunes…but summon them to our bad fortunes with hesitation; for we ought to give them as little a share as possible in our evils.
And this line brings home the point. “[W]e must,” Aristotle writes, “no doubt avoid getting the reputation of kill-joys by repulsing them; for that sometimes happens.”
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