The other evening I went to my girlfriend’s Toastmasters Club happy hour event at a downtown bar. Normally, I would have declined the invitation as making small talk with a bunch of strangers is usually pretty painful.
However, in the spirit of Epicurean month, I decided to go and be social and maybe make a few friends.
I arrived at Ping Pong Dim Sum (a hip dim sum place) and, already veering off my self-imposed diet, ordered the chicken puffs and some sort of fancy cocktail with mochi balls in them.
My girlfriend then introduced me to her fellow Toastmasters and spent a few hours in mostly banal but pleasant conversation.
Overall, it was time well spent, or at least, it was better than watching TV.
The thought occurred to me though, that the reason I did not enjoy it as much as I could have was that the people I talked to weren’t friends.
That is an obvious observation. Of course, I just met them so they couldn’t possible be my friends.
Then I started thinking about what would need to do to turn acquaintances into friends.
Epicurus, being a wise real estate guru, purchased a home with a garden just outside of Athens. The garden served as a campus and commune for his friends and followers (I wonder if I would be annoyed having people around my backyard all the time….).
Inscribed on the gate to the garden was the following motto:
“Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.”
Note that unlike a modern BBQ, where the host is expected to provide a wide variety of grilled meat, sides, and alcoholic beverages, Epicurus is only offering barley-meal and water.
Worst BBQ ever…right?
Despite the boring fare, Epicurus gained many friends and followers in his garden.
So what did he do right?
First, Epicurus did not just expect friendships to happen. In fact, he believed that friendship starts because of some internal calculus that says “this person will benefit me, therefore I should attempt to be his or her friend.”
Every friendship is desirable for itself, but it has its origin in personal advantage.
At the happy hour, the crude thought came to mind that all these people would be good additions to my professional network. Therefore, I must be friendly.
However, we know that the mark of true friendship doesn’t rely on some utilitarian calculus.
That friendship arises because of its advantages; that there must be a starting point, of course, Just as we sow seed in the ground, but that friendship is consolidated by the communal living of those who have attained the full complement of pleasure…
Here, Epicurus (or rather, a biographer of Epicurus), says that friendships must be cultivated. When you are planting a seed in the ground, you must water and nurture it until the flower blooms, and even then it will still require care and attention.
The way Epicurus did this was by providing a space where anyone could come and eat (minimally) and discuss philosophy and enjoy the present. Epicurus did not exclude anyone (men and women, both freemen and slaves were welcome) and a result, he enjoyed the company of a diverse group of people that went on to propagate his wisdom. I have to admit I’m a bit jealous….I don’t think my friends record my teachings and tell their other friends about my genius…
This all sounds well and good, but is this effort worth it? As someone who is fairly introverted, it sounds exhausting.
A true Epicurean would say yes:
Of all the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of the whole man, by far the most important is the acquisition of friendship.
So how can we make friends?
I believe the Toastmasters group was on the right track. They provided an informal setting where the goal simply to have a bit of fun (though they did try to get me to come to a meeting).
However, unlike Epicurus’ garden, the restaurant is not a place where a group of people can spontaneously come over and hang out and discuss big ideas. You have to plan these things, and you must spend a minimum of $15 while you’re there.
There are enough barriers to organizing a group happy hour which makes it a sub-optimal approach for cultivating true friendships..
I’m not sure if there is a universal logistical method that could help cultivate friendships, but there need to be two elements to deepening your friendships:
- High frequency – It goes without saying that if you don’t see your friends that often, it’s harder to stay friends. The reverse is also true: if you see your friends a lot, you are likely to deepen your friendships.
- Large blocks of “nothing time” – In high school I would have a lot of fun just hanging out with friends at their house or my house. We didn’t plan to do anything in particular. We would skate(board), play basketball, watch TV, and other non-productive activities. It was great! Very different than the 1-hour “catch-up” coffee date.
I actually think that there is one environment that would easily meet these two conditions: work.
Now, I don’t know about your work, but my work is often filled with blocks of time where I don’t have anything to do, at least not immediately. I don’t like everyone at my work, but there are a few people I like to chat with. So, occasionally I’ll ask these people to get coffee and we just hang out and talk and not do much of anything.
I always feel better after those coffee sessions.
I also noticed that at the government site where I work a few days per week, people have much more time to take a break, wander around and talk with people, take a long lunch etc. Yes, I’m sure my fellow libertarians and enemies of big government would abhor the inefficiency, but I would say that it’s a very Epicurean environment. Relatively little work and lots of free time to have long conversations about whatever topic that comes up.
Obviously, not all workplaces are like this, but I imagine most of us are neglecting opportunities to form friendships at work that would increase the amount of pleasure and joy in our lives.