Mental Health Awareness week: Friendship is the greatest of the external goods

In celebration of Mental Health Awareness week, Head of Department of Philosophy, Dr Graeme A. Forbes has written an article on friendship, mental health, and the ‘external goods’.

By Dr Graeme A. Forbes
Head of Department of Philosophy

More than once during the year of the pestilence, my mental health has been something I have been aware of. I have been aware of it because it hasn’t been very good. Good mental health is a good thing to have. When you don’t have it you are especially aware of this. On such occasions I often find myself shifting my awareness from my mental health to my friends. I’m lucky to have some excellent friends. I want to explain why, when my mental health is bad, I am especially grateful for my friends.

Of the good things to have mental health is what we might, following Aristotle, call an ‘external good’. The external goods include wealth, physical health, political power, mental health, and friendship. They are ‘external goods’ because they concern my circumstances rather than concerning directly who I am. I can do things to increase the likelihood I will have them, but my circumstances depend in good part on luck. We can contrast these external good with ‘internal goods’ goods of character, which, we might think, define who I am in a way my circumstances don’t. Place me in different circumstances, and I’ll still be me.

The Aristotelian thought is that I’m morally responsible for the internal goods of character more than I am for external goods. We need to tread carefully here, however. In some ways it is easier for me to affect my wealth than my character: if I empty my bank account and give all my money away I will have affected my wealth, but my character is unlikely to be radically altered by a single act. And my character when I was young was much less up to me than it is now I’ve had a few years to work on it (and opportunities to travel, and associate with different people, and learn from some mistakes). Perhaps the more important Aristotelian thought is that the internal goods are more morally valuable than the external goods. The external goods are valuable because they are required to some extent to have the internal goods. But a good character is valuable by itself. Unlike the Stoics, Aristotle thinks that without the external goods, we can’t have flourishing lives. But having a flourishing life just is exercising excellence of character.

So mental health, and having friends, are both things you need some of to have a good life, but are only valuable because they allow you to exercise the internal goods. And some people are just unlucky; through no fault of their own, they lack some of the external goods. Money is quite special, because you can just give it to people. Mental health and friends can’t just be provided in the same way. Indeed there are internal goods – virtuous habits – that can help with these. Self-care and friendliness, for example. But even if one diligently practices self-care, and is a good friend to others when they get a chance, misfortune can still mean that the external goods elude them. Why should I claim that friendship is a greater external good than mental health?

Cultivating virtuous habits, for many of us, is far from effortless. Most of us are biological creatures that respond biologically to our circumstances. If you put us in stressful situations, we experience stress, and tend to function less well after a while. Our capacities for self-cultivation degrade, and out mental health suffers. This isn’t necessarily a failing; it’s just how stress works. (If it were a failing we would need some sense of what else we expected to happen!) Something like ‘resilience’ sounds like a good thing here. It describes the ability for one’s mental health to persist through comparatively large amounts of stress. Resilience is an excellent external good! But friends are great, because even resilient people succumb to the effects of stress eventually. And friends can look out for you when you are struggling to look after yourself. I can get by with a little help from my friends.

But friends are even better than that! Because it’s not just that they will look out for you at your lowest ebb, but they can stop things getting that bad, by making circumstances less stressful. Better still, friends can make otherwise good circumstances even better!

This might make friendship sound rather transactional. When my mental health hits a trough, my friends show up, and then when I am feeling a bit better, I listen to them whine about their day. But that doesn’t seem to be how friendship works. Half the time I feel flattered that my friends came to me with their problems. And feeling like I’m part of a community seems to be valuable over and above whatever’s going on with me. Indeed, being part of a community seems valuable by itself. Friends are the greatest of the external goods partly because they straddle the distinction between what’s valuable for itself and what’s instrumentally valuable. Genuine friendship is the best thing to cope with those times when our mental health suffers, but our friends also provide us a reason to keep going, because we recognise that our friends matter in a fundamentally non-transactional way, and that we matter to them.

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