Cast, Friends, 1994
Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, Matt Leblanc and David Schwimmer in Friends in 1994. Photo credit: © Warner Bros. Television/Album/Entertainment Pictures via ZUMA Press

The economy of friendship is in freefall.

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What’s wrong with us, with all of us, has reached the parrots. 

Parrots are social animals. In the wild they live in huge flocks, so in captivity they can become lonely and depressed, which they express by plucking out their own feathers. This state of affairs inspired research out of Northeastern University, MIT, and the University of Glasgow in which scientists taught domestic parrots to video chat with other parrots. Yes! The researchers worked with 18 birds and their owners, teaching them to interact with other birds via an iPad. When they wanted to make a call, the birds would ring a bell. And then everyone just watched what happened.

Ten instances of pet parrots in video calls with other parrots.

Once you get those parrots video chatting, there’s no stopping them. It’s all “seeds” this and “molting” that. Photo credit: ACM Digital Library (CC BY 4.0 DEED)

The birds seemed to understand that they were talking to other birds. They’d sing and hang upside down and show off their toys. The birds also learned new things from one another, picking up new songs or discovering how to fly. 

You may not be surprised to hear that the parrots who made the most calls got the most calls. 

We all know this person.

So — birds get lonely, and connecting virtually seems to help. This is surprising, and not — a type of irony that seems common to our experience now. Kind of like the realization that, for humans, we have more ways to connect with one another than ever before, but we’re lonelier than we’ve ever been.

Back in 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone. It argued that since the 1960s, American social, civic, and religious life has been on the decline — that we’re becoming more and more isolated in all the spheres that we think of as fundamental, not just to American life, but to human life. 

Then came the internet, social media, smartphones, and the pandemic, and now we have stories with headlines like this one from NPR: “Making friends is easy when you’re young, but it can be harder as you age.” And this from The New York Times: “How Many Friends Do You Really Need?” They’re the sort of simple sentiments you don’t expect to see from legacy media so much as from a publication that has a connect the dots page, or coming out of the mouth of a squirrel puppet in a child psychologist’s office. Collectively, they suggest we’re backsliding.

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog contemplates the infinite, but really just wants a buddy to talk shop about walking sticks. Photo credit: Caspar David Friedrich / WikiArt (Public Domain)

These kinds of interpersonal-crisis stories — about how the number of close friendships we have is declining, or how we’ve forgotten how to have sex, or how isolation is making boys and men more violent — have been rolling out for years. And other stories look for causes: phones, postwar infrastructure, work, the lack of “third places” where people can hang out. 

All variations on a theme: how, amid all this connection, we’re not connecting. And once you read enough of them, you’ll notice a certain term: “friendship recession.” We’re in a friendship recession. What do we do about the friendship recession? Don’t lose your investment of pals in the friendship recession. 

What it means is the economy of intimacy is in freefall.


The term “friendship recession” can be traced to a May 2021 study from the Survey Center on American Life. The survey asked 2,000 adults questions about their friendships — things like: How satisfied are you with the number of friends you have? Who do you turn to with a problem? Do you feel isolated or depressed? Variations on the question of whether or not we as a culture feel like parrots, pulling out our feathers.

I wanted to know more about the state of American friendship, so I reached out to the study’s author, Daniel A. Cox, who’s the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a species of researcher who does a lot of polling on things like the workplace, social life, dating, and religion. Cox has been conducting surveys and polls for more than 15 years, and was surprised by the reaction to this one.

“This single survey has gotten more attention than anything else I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “And it’s come out of nowhere really. I didn’t expect that we would really see the kind of interest in this subject. … But then when you talk to folks about it, almost everyone can relate in some way.”

American friendship is, like so many things, political.

Big takeaway: “Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.” 

The study became a touchstone for the public conversation about the friendship crisis. It’s a handy peg for a news outlet to hang a story on. “Friendship recession” — Cox’s study gave the disease a name.

According to the study, the causes include people marrying later, being less rooted to one place, working longer hours, and losing touch with others during the COVID-19 pandemic. (But also, interestingly, nearly half the respondents said they made a new friend during the pandemic.)

The survey revisited a Gallup study from 1990s. From the new responses, Cox said they found that Americans have fewer friends, and are also less civically involved in organizations. That includes church membership, which is on the decline. And you know what that means.

American friendship is, like so many things, political.


The Survey Center on American Life is a project of the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is one of the oldest think tanks in the country. 

It’s a free-market shop, at the heart of old-school conservative thought in the US. Maybe it’s no surprise that a free-market think tank would birth a study that puts friendship in the economic terms of a recession. But I also think that’s why it spread so far in the news media. It’s a metaphor we can easily grasp, and it implicitly suggests a connection between the friendship crisis and other crises — the economy, the environment. This is my own theory, though, and I see connections with depressed parrots, so you know: grain of salt.

Anyway, the American Enterprise Institute: On its website, the AEI espouses “democracy, free enterprise, American strength and global leadership, solidarity with those at the periphery of our society, and a pluralistic, entrepreneurial culture.” 

Talking about think tanks and political bias tends to raise blood pressures all around, but Cox maintains that his research is free of AEI thumbs on the scale.

“We don’t take any positions on policy issues. We exist kind of upstream from some of the policy debates of my colleagues and other think tanks and organizations around DC,” he said. “Our purpose really is to try to describe some of these things that are happening and then leave it to others to argue about what should be done about it or who’s to blame or all that.”

Alright, so let me just cut in here to say holy hell — the social sciences are crazy. But what do you expect when your data isn’t measured in kilograms or joules or pounds per square inch, but in feelings. The raw material is collected by surveys, after all — people asking people how they feel. The way questions are phrased, the way interviewees feel when they answer the questions — the expectations they have about what they should say — all of this will complicate things.

happy, Finnish, women

Plenty of nature, a good social safety net, some drinks and a few little flags: the Finnish recipe for happiness. Photo credit: Aktiv I / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

Of course, social scientists try to control for this, and I’m not one, so I certainly don’t understand all the nuances here. Suffice to say that, as I’ve been reading these surveys and studies, whenever I find a “definitive” statement, I’ll turn around and find something somewhere saying the opposite. You could lose your mind trying to discover anything about human behavior. Look at Freud. Eventually his answer to everything was penises.

Science has made things a little easier, in that now you can slide someone into an fMRI and see what their brain is doing when you show them pictures of people eating spaghetti or whatever. This isn’t foolproof either, but certainly the giant magnetic donut is a popular tool in the study of human nature. 

Still, for some things, you’ve got no choice but to use the good old tried-and-true survey. And because it doesn’t give you 100 percent guaranteed answers, the social sciences become a cage fight of interpreting data. 

I asked Cox how he thought the friendship recession had been spun by the left and the right. He said that while both conservatives and liberals agree that there is a crisis, they differ in what it means for one very long-running and contentious issue: marriage. 

Left-leaning parties, he said, “are concerned about the decline in friendship because there’s much more hesitancy, I would say, around the institution of marriage,” and so friend networks become a social structure that might “replace marriage.” As with church attendance, marriage rates are on the decline (despite a post-pandemic bump), which concerns conservatives, whose politics can in part be defined by “the furtherance of family creation.”

“Married people tend to have much more robust and much larger social networks than people who are single,” Cox told me. “People who are married tend to be better off when it comes to their friendships.”


This is where the case pulled me in a different direction altogether. I’d thought I was just trying to chase down the origins of the “friendship recession,” which seemed like it would be pretty straightforward — our phones, our cities, our jobs. But once I added in the marriage question, it started to become downright survivalist.

For example: Are married people healthier? There are studies showing benefits related to longevity and mental health, but it’s all about averages and the kind of person and the kind of marriage, and may be related to factors that have nothing to do with some inherent magic advantage of marriage. 

Some say that health benefits could derive from behavior modification, like keeping men around the house so they’re less likely to engage in high-risk behavior, like hanging out with mobsters. This is really something I read. Or the boost could be related to the thousand-plus federal benefits bestowed on married people. Or, it could be as simple as having someone to pound you on the back when you’re choking on a soup dumpling.

And social scientists, being people, are obsessed with the thing the rest of us people are obsessed with: What makes us happy? There are studies — dozens of studies, millions of studies — asking, Who’s actually happier, the marrieds or the singles?

Again, I’m not an expert on relationship science, but I have got a keen nose for people trying to sell me something, and I can say that if someone says confidently that one or the other is definitely for sure happier — they’ve got an angle. But if you’re like me, you may enjoy sitting on the sidelines with a hot dog and watching the sport of researchers and writers performing amazing gymnastic feats with the language to try to make it make sense.

Here’s a line from an article in Psychology Today: “People don’t get healthy and happy because they get married, but rather it’s the other way around.”

Here’s one from Berkeley: “Happy people who get married still end up happier than happy people who don’t.”

And here’s one from a Harvard happiness expert named Daniel Gilbert: “Marriage doesn’t make you happy. Happy marriages make you happy.”

What I think is fascinating about all this — the friendship recession and all this squishy social science — is that it’s a very modern and very American way of trying to understand the meaning of life itself. What’s it all about? What’s it for? How do you do it? Why does it require so many costume changes?

The marriage thing is particularly relevant because it’s one of the fundamentals of American politics. If marriage is objectively, measurably better than not, that validates all kinds of traditional views about how we should live. And if friendship is in some way replacing marriage, what does that mean? And what does it mean if friendship and marriage are on the wane?

Thus we reach the last and final leg of our exploration of the good life, and it is, not surprisingly, political.


Did you know that since 1972, scientists have been asking a question that makes the marriage thing look tame: Who’s happier, conservatives or liberals?

And did you know that, for 50 years, conservatives are always, always, happier? Depending on who you ask, this is either because conservatives are more religious and patriotic and family-oriented and stable and find more meaning in life from these things, or, it’s because conservatives are willfully blind to the inequalities and injustices and crises that liberals can’t help but fret, lose sleep, and subscribe to HBO over. Life being “meaningful” could mean, if you’re conservative, that the world is more or less as it should be or, if you’re liberal, it could mean the world is screwed up and the goal is to fix as much as you can.

Maybe that’s at the heart of this Great Friendship Recession: some failure to make us secure enough in the place we live that we want to go out in it and spend time with other people. Certainly I’m not going to find an easy answer here when no one else can agree on one.

There’s also science here that says being conservative or liberal may be wired into our brains, and one writer suggests that liberals are more prone to mental illness because of this wiring, or being liberal isn’t wired but actually causes mental illness. The richest man in the world certainly believes this, vis a vis the “woke mind virus.”

Or, maybe it’s all horseshit. There are studies that suggest conservatives are saying they’re happier, but liberals actually are — when you look at their words, or examine their facial expressions using special cameras — demonstrating happiness. 

Whatever the case, let me read you something from a 2021 Pew survey. I don’t know that it’s science, but it sure sounds like poetry.

It goes like this:

Republicans, along with independents who lean to the Republican Party, are much more likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to mention words like “God,” “freedom,” “country,” “Jesus” and “religion.” Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to mention words like “new,” “dog,” “reading,” “outside,” “daughter” and “nature.”


I’ll just leave that out there. Let’s end this tour of interpersonal relations at a place that consistently gets named the happiest place in the world. That place is Finland, which for the seventh year in a row got top marks from the World Happiness Report based on things like life expectancy, social support, GDP per capita, and a mysterious category called “Dystopia + residual.” What makes Finland so happy? Oxford geography professor Danny Dorling offers an explanation:

Just why Finns are happier than others comes down to a number of factors including lower income inequality (most importantly, the difference between the highest paid and the lowest paid), high social support, freedom to make decisions, and low levels of corruption.

By the way, in this year’s just-announced rankings, the US dropped out of the top 20 for the first time. It’s now behind the UAE and ahead of Germany, which seems about right.

I happen to know a couple of Finns. One looks and sounds like a Bond villain but is pretty fun-loving. The other, though — he seems like a citizen of the happiest country in the world.

His name is Pekka Pekkala, and when I met him he’d just moved to Los Angeles and wanted to do everything. He lived at the beach, hiked, started a business, went outside at the drop of a hat. I had a theory. Since the Finns spend so much of the year in darkness, Pekka was experiencing a chemical reaction, drawing power from LA’s endless yellow sun… Like Superman, only instead of flight and super strength, Pekka’s powers were exuberance and buying a used Mustang convertible.

He’s back in Finland now, living in Helsinki. He’s a senior communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, meaning he basically runs Finland’s website. I got him on the line to ask what he thought about all this happiness business.

“You have essentially an entire country that is supposedly very happy, that has somehow unlocked whatever it means to be happy,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. If you ask Finns, we are all kind of surprised,” he said. 

I asked him to interpret why they might be so happy.

“My explanation is, we are just kind of happy with what we have, type of thing.” Pekka’s theory is that Finns aren’t basing their happiness on the kind of self-improvement and wealth-acquisition common to influencers and cult leaders; “It’s more like a ‘life is pretty good’ type of happy.”

What the hell does that mean?

“It’s not like I’m super happy every day,” he said. “Just content. It’s like, yeah, life is pretty good. I have no other explanation.”

He works for the Finnish government, which conducts a survey every few months on overall satisfaction with life in the country. He says about 80 percent are “quite happy” but “then there’s the 10, 20 percent of people who are not happy no matter what you do.” 

Pekka says — and other analyses pointed this out too — that a big thing is income equality. There’s not a massive gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is partially because the have-nots still… have… and the really rich, like the folks who created those great Finnish brands like Nokia and Angry Birds, those guys don’t go around flaunting it. “So perhaps that also builds to the culture that you are not jealous of people or want more because you see that even the people who have more money than they ever need, they don’t do anything super fantastic with the money.”

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Pekka says most people are okay with the high tax rate because that creates equality and security. This reflects what University of Helsinki happiness researcher Jennifer DePaola said about the latest ranking: “Finnish society is permeated by a sense of trust, freedom, and high level of autonomy.”

That security, Pekka says, means low crime, so he can be okay with his daughter taking the bus to school. It’s also the security of a nation with a strong safety net, where “if something bad happens to you, if you get sick or other things that you can’t control, you kind of feel safe no matter what happens. My kids will not go hungry and I won’t become poor.”

“It’s really secure,” he concludes, “and I think that’s one of the basic needs that you have if you want to be happy.”

This is ultimately about politics. Not the politics of partisan cultural identity, but the politics of making your society create and maintain a place worth living in.

Maybe that’s at the heart of this Great Friendship Recession: some failure to make us secure enough in the place we live that we want to go out in it and spend time with other people. 

Certainly I’m not going to find an easy answer here when no one else can agree on one. But, if I can be allowed to act like a social scientist and go by feelings:

Since I started working on this I’ve been thinking a lot about people I have known who do seem happier, or more content, or who just move through life more easily. And excepting those solar-powered freakish outliers who are just obviously really happy, I’d say (and I’d be curious if you agree), that the happiest people do seem to be the ones with people in their lives. Close friends they see regularly, a tight-knit family, social involvement through volunteering or an organization they really believe in. 

Again, that’s just a feeling, but it feels true. That’s a solid metric for this survey, at least. And sure, there are people with lots of friends who are secretly sad, and there are loners who love their lives. But like those parrots, when people have people, they’re more likely to learn to fly. Then again, if Finland is any indication, it also seems essential to have a society that’ll catch you if you fall.

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