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How Many Friends Do You Need?

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February 12, 2018

By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist



Like many men of his era, Henry Ford ,of Model T and Ford Motor Company fame, maintained his deepest attachments with his family. But he also had strong, enduring friendships, such as the one he shared with his boyhood idol  and inventer Thomas Edison.   They met at a 1896 Convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, and sooon became fast friends.  They exchanged gifts, sometimes traveled together and, according to the Henry Ford Foundation, even bough neighboring vacatio homes. In other words, they had teh kind of friendship many of us wish we had.


These two famous men struck a friendship as adults. Today, many of us stop making friends once we hit adulthood. Instead, we have fleeting alliances at work and occasional texts with people we once knew. The deep, abiding, friendships where one person confides in the other the things that really matter to them is fast becoming a thing of the past.  Why is that?  And how many good friendships do you need to feel okay?

We live in an isolating world.  It's a paradox, really. Never before has the human race been more connected by virtue of the internet. Yet never before have there been so much widespread disconnection and misunderstanding. The evidence of this is found is the climbing rates of suicide in places as disparate as Japan, the US and  Europe.

Moreover, mobility encouraged by the need for better lives has estranged families and social bonds. Little wonder that many of us feel lonely and are in fact alone. We know we need social contact and friends to stay emotionally healthy. But how do we find these friends we need?


You Can Only Handle 150 Social Relationships

First, before we get to the minimum number of friends you need, let's take a look at the other end of the spectrum. What is the maximum number of friends you can handle?

Despite what Facebook may lead you to believe, There is an upper limit to the number of people with whom you can maintain a stable relationship. That number is 150. According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, human beings cannot maintain more than 150 social relationships in a stable manner.

Beyond that number, relationships do not get nourished, misunderstandings crop up too often, or interest wanes on your part or theirs.

You Need at Least 5 Friends















As you might expect, scientists have studied the question of how many friends you can maintain. The number here is 5.  In 2007, Professor Dunbar and his team this time analyzed 6 billion phone calls between 35 million people in an unnamed European country.

What the Dunbar team found were telling patterns. There were calls from people which were never returned. There were calls which were returned. There were calls to certain people multiple times a week or month.

The researchers deduced that our closest friendships we make and return calls. For the average person, there were only 5 people to whom we made calls and returned calls. These are our closest friends. These are the people to whom we entrust our deepest secrets.

Five people? Surely we know more than 5 people we like and who like us?

Actually, the average person maintains relationships that form concentric circles around them. In the tightest, smallest circle closest to us, we find our best buddies -- the best 5.

The next circle averages about 10 people. We see these people, maintain regular contact with them but don't tell them all our secrets. They may not know, for example, that we are unhappy in our marriage or that we really want to leave our job but they may share an activity with us from time to time.

Then there are outer circles that include transient relationships or relationships that have become distant. This circle may include long lost cousins, for example, or friends from way back when in high school.


The researchers did not understand why some people maintain, say, 15 people in their second circle, while others maintain 25.

But they think the difference may be tied to your personality. Extroverts will have more people in their second and third circles. Introverts may maintain a smaller number in their outer circles and feel perfectly okay with that.

Life Changes Such as Moving, Changing Jobs, Having Kids and Retirement Affect Friendships

It goes almost without saying that shifts in your life can dramatically change  your friendships both in terms of numbers and quality. I found that my decision to spend a good part of the year in Europe created a distance in my friendships back home in the US. I had to make a concerted, consistent effort to be the one to reach out in order to bolster these friendships.

Changing jobs or retirement can change your friendships. We may have friendships which were started at work or which were centered around bonds working through issues involving work. You may have been allies against your boss, for example.

When you change jobs, those friendships may no longer seem important because the reason for the friendship and have gone away.

Here is what I know. Friendships are like plants. They require water, fertilizer and sunshine.  You have to regularly reach out to friends. You have to care about what is going on in their lives. You have to share their journeys. That's the only way to ensure that the friendship will stay alive.




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