How many friends should we have in our whole life?

Dunbar’s Number

After studying the size of the human brain in the 1990s, anthropologist Dr. Robin Dunbar concluded that there is a limit on the number of people with which we can maintain a meaningful social relationship.

That number is 148, though it is often rounded to 150 for ease.

The key word here is meaningful.

You may know the names and faces of many more people than this, but it is unlikely that you’ll be in any real contact with most of them.

But Dunbar has since gone further to explore how emotional closeness influences the way we might categorize those 150 connections.

He suggests that you are likely to have no more than 5 people in your critical top layer – your inner sanctum of companionship.

Depending on where you are in your life, this layer might be made up of parents, siblings, a partner, or best friends.

You might then have up to a further 10 close connections who you see regularly and whom you hold dear. These might be good friends or family members.

The next layer down consists of an additional 35 people whom you often interact with and would consider inviting to a special occasion such as your birthday.

Then there are 100 people who you know relatively well, but who you might not see too much.

Dunbar and his colleagues have investigated the accuracy of these numbers using various means and they seem to stack up on average.

But here’s the limitation to Dunbar’s Number: what good is an average number when an individual like you is asking how many friends they need?

So is there any value in these layers?

Well, yes.

What’s really important is those first two layers: your inner sanctum and your close companions.

These 15 people are the ones who will provide you with much of the emotional wealth that you really need in life.

To different extents and in varying circumstances, these people will bring you the greatest feeling of connection and the biggest potential for happiness.

These are the people you will turn to for support and comfort when you need it.

They are those who really mean something to you.

But as we’re about to explore, this number might be more than some people need and fewer than others would like.

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How to Keep the Friendships You Make

After you've made new friends, you're most likely wondering how you can keep these friendships. Here are some ways to keep your friendships strong:

  • Schedule time for your friends. Meeting up with people every once in a while is helpful, but keeping the friendship alive will require you to meet more consistently. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend 24 hours of every day together; simply plan meetings throughout the month and stick to them.
  • Be a better friend. If you want to make friends, you must be a good friend to them too. That means not canceling plans, showing up on time, listening when they talk, and so forth.
  • Stay in touch. Living somewhere else doesn’t have to mean never seeing your old friends again. You could try messaging them on social media to see how they’re doing.
Maintaining Friendships for Stress Relief, Happiness and Longevity

Its normal to choose quality over quantity as we get older

Summer has also stopped accumulating new friends because life and age tend to make us more discerning about who we have in our lives.

"I find that because of kids, work and my general exhaustion, I don't have as much time or energy to even properly maintain the existing relationships I care deeply about, which makes me hesitant to form new friendships," she says.

This is extremely common — one study followed people over a 30-year period to evaluate their psychological wellbeing in relation to their social network. It found that we are happiest later in life if we prioritised the quantity of friends in our 20s but focused on the quality of our friendships in our 30s and beyond.

So our future selves benefit from the vigorous socialising we tend to do in our first decade as an adult, as well as a more discerning approach as we get older.

Andre Rangiah, also in his early 30s, agrees that as he gets older he's more comfortable having fewer friends, but wants to stay open to meeting new people.

"Nothing beats a new friend crush," says Andre.(Supplied)

"I'm becoming grumpier every year! I have less time for friendships based in nostalgia or simply mutual kindness, but infinitely more time for meaningful connections.

"I am grateful for the friendships I've formed in my life. I don't wish for more, nor do I stop myself from forming new relationships.

"The day I close myself to new, wonderful people will be a sad day."

How to Make New Friends

There are many you can seek out and cultivate new friendships. Below is a list of tips you can use to help make friends.

  • Don’t be afraid to meet new people. Make an effort to introduce yourself in situations where you have the opportunity for interaction with others, such as at the grocery store, at the library, or even online. A simple way to meet new people is by joining a club that interests you, such as board games, sewing, cooking, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid of rejection. You may not connect with every person you talk to. That’s OK! Some friendships are meant to last and develop into lifelong companions, while others are temporary.
  • Find people who have similar interests. Think about what you like to do and who you want to do it with. For example, do you enjoy reading books? Find a friend that loves to read as well.
  • Turn acquaintances into friends. You can turn acquaintances into friends by simply talking to them from time to time, finding out more about their interests, and sharing your thoughts with them.
  • Volunteer your time. Volunteering is an excellent way to meet new people that are passionate about the same things you are! You’ll find out what they’re interested in, ask them questions, and learn more about their lifestyle.
  • Work on your shyness or social anxiety. If you live with shyness or social anxiety, there are ways to overcome these issues. You’ll find out new things about yourself and even meet people who have the same struggles as you.
  • Be open-minded. Some people you meet might be different from you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not exciting people. Learn more about what makes them who they are rather than judging them.
  • Be open with people about who you are. If someone asks you a question about yourself, answer truthfully. If you don’t want to talk about something, say so. Don’t act like someone else to impress people. You’ll end up with people who like you for the wrong reasons.
  • Be friendly. Smiling and saying “hello” when you see a new person is a good way of making friends. If you are in college and your school has an orientation, go to it! That’s where people will be more open about meeting others.
  • Give compliments. This can be something as simple as commenting on a new outfit or complimenting someone’s new hairstyle.
  • Ask for their contact information. This can be done after a class, at the end of an online chat session, etc. Sometimes it may feel too soon, but don’t wait forever to ask, or it may never happen.
  • Don’t come on too strong if you want to make new friends. You might find yourself smothering someone, getting too attached, or even pushing them away with your overbearing neediness.
  • Be open and honest. If you think someone is cool, tell them! Show an interest in who they are and what they like. People love talking about themselves.
  • Try your luck with the “silent” or introverted types. Although introverts might not be social butterflies, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to make friends. Likewise, just because someone is quiet and keeps to themselves doesn’t necessarily mean they are unfriendly. So, strike up a conversation anyway.

Of course, you don't need to use all of these suggestions, so try using the tips that feel most authentic to you and see where it takes you!

Returning To Emotional Closeness

In this article, we’ve argued that Dunbar’s Number as an average has little value to the individual.

Where we have agreed with Dunbar is in the idea that the people in our lives occupy different layers of importance.

These layers are all based around emotional closeness: how connected we feel to someone on an emotional level.

And this brings us back to our original statement about how the right number of friends is the number you feel content with.

You need as many friends as is necessary to fulfil your emotional needs.

For some, this means a tiny handful of important people and a scattering of good friends.

Others might find they need far more friends to provide for their various emotional needs.

Part of it will come down to just how close you feel to any given person.

If you and your partner truly are the best of friends, you can confide in them and they provide you with much of the love you feel you need, you might shift some other people out of your top layers into a lower one.

That’s why some people ‘disappear’ when in a relationship. They are getting so many of their emotional needs met by their partner that they become less dependent on their friends or family to meet those same needs.

But if, despite loving them very much, you and your partner aren’t as emotionally close as you’d like, you may actively seek other connections to provide that need.

So, just to drive the point home one last time…

No one can tell you how many friends you need.

You should not feel obliged to make a precise number of friends.

You only ought to focus on creating the right number of connections at each of the various levels of emotional closeness in order to feel content and fulfilled.

Your layers might contain 2, 6, 15, and 20 people.

Or they might contain 5, 12, 40, and 110 people.

Both are right, neither is wrong, they just represent different people.

Find your unique composition of friendship layers – this is how many friends you need.

Quit worrying about filling a particular quota.

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