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Friendship in the age of COVID-19
  1. Terence Ryan
  1. University of Oxford Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Terence Ryan, University of Oxford Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX2 6HG UK; terence.ryan2021{at}

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Professor RIM Dunbar of the Oxford Department of Experimental Psychology made a startling and important statement in 2018 based on studies of the brain1: ‘Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well being, and happiness.’ Friendship can be added to a range or spectrum of much discussed emotions: sympathy, empathy, compassion, the provision of dignity, kindness and bringing cheer/joy. These are outputs of the mind dependent on the brain, but they differ in exactly what they express. Some, like compassion, have been discussed in this journal2 and of course in many others,3–5 and is especially a concern of caring.

‘Caring for life’ was a major theme of a conference held in Oxford in 2019 in the home of the father of modern medicine, Sir William Osler (1849–1919). The topics discussed included the benefits as well as some difficulties created by science or care technology, and the need to apply care attitude or humane education to assuage such difficulties.

Osler6 and his admirer John McGovern (1921–2007) both believed that science with its knowledge and skill needs the steadying infrastructure of humanistic values and objectives. During the conference, McGovern was quoted, as follows:

The practice of medicine requires knowledge and skill, frequently labelled as the science and art of medicine, yet knowledge and skill are incomplete without the steadying infrastructure of humanistic values and objectives. 7

Osler thought of compassion, defined by Sir Thomas Browne as a feeling that embraced the sadness of others; perhaps therefore causing one to feel sad. Many have emphasised the therapeutic power of Osler as a consequence of his friendliness.8 He believed in Robert Burton’s call ‘for a friend that made you laugh’9 and Osler wrote: ‘it is an unpardonable mistake to go about with a long …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.