A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Psychology of Friendship
In 1938, Harvard University began what would become a groundbreaking study on what makes a healthy and happy life. Researchers tracked 268 Harvard sophomores throughout the years and eventually expanded the study to include their children, wives, and an additional 456 Boston inner-city residents.
Over the years, the longitudinal study looked at several aspects of the participants’ lives, including their health as well as success and failure in their careers and marriages.
According to Robert Waldinger, who directed the study and is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.”
Close relationships — more than money, power, or fame — lead to a more satisfying life.
George Valliant, a psychiatrist who led the study from 1972 until 2004, said it best: “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
My Own Lifelong Friendships
As a younger man, I thought it inevitable that as I aged and met more people, the number of close friends would naturally grow. To my surprise, this has not usually been the case. Instead, my established relationships have continued to deepen. A shared history, it seems, is more important than I had anticipated.
I have been slow to appreciate that there are different types of relationships. For example, having spent days — even years — making life-and-death decisions together with other physicians, I assumed these shared experiences would naturally result in closer friendships. While I do have genuine friendships with some of my professional colleagues, many remain simply acquaintances.
Remarkably, a group of college freshmen — myself included — who met in a dormitory at Brandeis University in 1960 have remained close friends for more than 60 years. We have attended one another’s weddings, our children’s bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings, grandchildren’s bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings, and tragically, the funerals of three in the group. We connect whenever we can find an excuse, and several of us spend a few days every year vacationing together in the Cayman Islands.*
Friendship and Sports
When it comes to sports, relationships are often temporary and a matter of convenience. I had hoped the relationships with the Chicago Bulls players and other members from the championship ride of the 90s would endure, but I was disappointed. Ex-players, trainers, and managers have since told me that friendships in professional sports are frequently temporary, which I’ve found to be the case in most instances, with a few exceptions.
Brian Williams was one of those exceptions. Our friendship continued, at least until its tragic ending.
Brian came to the Bulls with nine games remaining at the end of the 1997 season and was an essential factor in the team winning its fifth championship. He played all 19 playoff games, averaging 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Steve Kerr said that the Bulls would not have won without Brian’s contribution.
Given his wide-ranging intelligence and activities, this left-handed forward-center clearly marched to the beat of several different drummers. He had a pilot’s license. He had traveled the world extensively — running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, camping in the Australian outback, and going to Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. His philosophy was to never stop learning, and he had the energy to pursue his all-encompassing passions.*
One of the things Brian and I bonded over was an interest in Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, a brilliant theoretical physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb, worked on quantum field theory and translated Mayan hieroglyphics. We also talked about things like jazz music and Formula One on the plane to games and in the training room.
After Brian moved on to the Detroit Pistons, we kept in touch. He would call every once in a while to ask about my stories, discuss Nietzsche and other philosophers, or invite me to get together when he was in town. I looked forward to hearing from him and continuing our friendship.
In 1999, at age 30, Brian decided to quit basketball and sail around the world. No one will ever know for sure what happened that summer in 2002 on his 56-foot-long catamaran, Hakuna Matata. The boat set sail from Tahiti bound for Hawaii on July 6 with Brian, his girlfriend, a skipper, and Brian’s brother. The last satellite call from the boat was July 8. Brian, his girlfriend, and the skipper were never seen or heard from again.
Police later concluded that his brother had probably killed the others. Much later, before he could be charged, he was found dead in Mexico from an apparent overdose of insulin.
I agree with this idea: “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you’ve been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”
I felt a deep connection with Brian, so I was devastated. While Brian’s life — and our friendship — ended sooner than it should have, I am thankful for the time we had together. He surely made my life, and the lives of everyone else he touched, better.