How Many Friends Can You Really Have?

Let’s go back to some data and a couple of experts to answer the question about the right number of friends to have.

According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades. “Zero” is also the most common response when people are asked how many close confidants they have the GSS data shows. And adult men seem to be especially bad at keeping and cultivating friendships.

This may seem strange in the era of Facebook, Twitter and our numerous social media options. But the “friends” in your digital galaxy aren’t the ones that matter when it comes to your health and happiness.

Dr. Mark Vernon, a philosopher, psychotherapist and author of The Meaning of Friendship suggests that even one very good friend can improve your life in profound ways. Vital friendships have the greatest impact on your health and happiness.

…even one very good friend can improve your life in profound ways.

–Dr. Mark Vernon

Dunbar’s Number

Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford early work studied the brains and social circles of primates. Dunbar recognized that the size of a human’s social network is limited by the size of a certain part of the human brain called the neocortex, a critical site for higher brain functions. He determined
“Dunbar’s number” which is the actual number of relationships you can actually manage effectively.

That number —usually cited as 150 (but is actually a range between 100 and 200) is the approximate size of a person’s social circle or number of your ever-changing group of friends and family members you would invite to a large party. Dunbar’s research suggests your brain really can’t hold a close connection with more than 150 people at any one time.

Dunbar says your closest 15 relationships—including family members or “kin”—seem to be most crucial when it comes to your mental and physical health.

Fewer Friends is Better

Recently, Dunbar and his fellow researchers dug into phone records to determine the closeness of relationships based on the frequency with which they spoke on the phone. Because we’re so text-obsessed now, they used records from 2007 when most people still talked on the phone. The results showed the average person had “4.1” close friends so Dunbar concludes we can safely say you can maintain up to five close friendships.

“You can only maintain up to five close friendships. “

— Dr. Robin Dunbar

Dunbar ultimately determines you need between three and five vital friendships for optimal well-being.

Friendships take time and energy, so if you’re trying to spread those finite brain resources with more than five people, odds are you are not doing any of your friendships very well.

Can You Lose Friends?

Despite their value to your health and well-being though, Dr. Mark Vernon also warns against turning your friends into what he calls “service providers” since these are not your personal social doctors even if these close friends are good for you. Do not be a “user” of friends but focus on providing mutual value. You also do not want to be that “needy” friend, both of which ultimately drive friends away from you.

How many friends do you have? What do you feel is the ideal number?

Share your ideas in the Comments section below.


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