After two years of pandemic life, you could find yourself at a fork in the friendship road, choosing between a whittled-down social circle and becoming overextended trying to make up for lost time with everyone on the outer reaches of your network. Amid an ongoing loneliness epidemic, people may feel renewed in their efforts to revive their networks due to the anxiety-inducing realization that their friend group has shrunk to an all-time minimum. Realizing the potential of fostering just a few intimate relationships, however, can be empowering.
Having lots of friends does have benefits: Acquiring a large quantity of friends in your 20s can help inform the quality of friendships you’ll have in your 30s, according to research. “People in their 20s tend to want to build a big roster of friends, because their motive is to expand their sense of identity, and you can do that through different types of people,” says psychologist and friendship expert Marisa Franco, author of the upcoming book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends. People who regularly interacted with 10 or more friends in midlife have higher levels of psychological well-being than those who had fewer than 10, according to a 2012 study. We also know that maintaining friendships leads to positive life satisfaction, minimizes stress, and even contributes to better physical health outcomes.
But you don’t need a roster dozens deep to enjoy the fruits of friendship. Franco says even having one friend is a net positive. “The biggest return we get in friendship is going from zero to one friend in terms of its impact on our mental health and well-being,” Franco says. “If you can get that deep with one person, it’s going to be powerful and it’s going to be impactful, and you don’t need to have a ton of friends.”
Instead of stretching yourself thin trying to keep in contact with everyone you’ve ever met or feeling pressured to make new friends, it’s worth considering the value of a few close confidants.
All you need is three (or four, or five)
Humans have a limit on how many deep friendships they’re able to sustain. In the 1990s, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar published a study claiming that humans can cognitively handle up to 150 meaningful social relationships (which includes family and friends) at any point, colloquially known as Dunbar’s Number. Not all 150 contacts are created equally, though. Out of dozens of connections, the number of close friendships people have, Dunbar found, is five. Similarly, a 2020 study found that having three to five close friends is enough to feel fulfilled.
Reaching this level of intimacy with a person requires a significant time investment — around 200 hours, researcher Jeffrey Hall found. To achieve this level of closeness with every person you encounter would be a time-consuming and exhausting task.
Those in whom you’ve invested the most time — say, a childhood friend or a colleague turned tier-one pal — are most likely to compose the inner circle of intimate friends. “Those relationships are very robust because you’ve invested so heavily in them, and they’re so mutual,” Dunbar says. “They’re the ones that you’ve known since you were in kindergarten and you’ve always kept in touch, and even if they go to Australia and you only see them once in a blue moon, you can pick that friendship up where you left off last time as though nothing’s happened.” Dunbar describes getting together with these friends as shifting into “automatic gear” because the relationship is so established.
These are the relationships where you can be unabashedly yourself. There’s no need to self-censor or perform for the most intimate friends, and they accept you for who you truly are, at your best and your not-so-best, says psychologist Andrea Bonior, author of Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted. The friends who make you feel energized, comfortable, restored, authentic, valued, and vulnerable — the ones you’d call immediately after receiving big news — are those likely to occupy special status. “Our deeper relationships help us feel loved for who we truly are rather than who we are telling everybody that we are,” Bonior says.
Thanks to social media, friendships are easily quantifiable, Bonior says, and it’s only natural to compare. When friends from college are constantly posting about their seemingly packed social schedules, feelings of inadequacy can arise or you may feel pressured to keep in touch with everyone you follow. However, our deepest friendships transcend the grid. The people you spend time with offline — and the care and support you give and receive tangibly — supersedes the curated version of your relationship. “Having 200 people say happy birthday to you online, that can create goodwill and a sense of belonging,” Bonior says. “It doesn’t really match the sense of ‘Things have gone really bad right now and I need somebody to listen and I know that they truly care about me.’ That’s something that’s very profound.”
There’s an element of reciprocity to these relationships, too, Franco says. Just as your best friends build you up, you also delight in supporting them; you initiate a hangout just as often as they do. If they’re distant because they’re going through a rough time, you continue to show up for them anyway, knowing they’d do the same for you.
How to foster these relationships
It’s one thing to say you have friends, but it’s another to actually spend time with them. If you’re looking to deepen select friendships and elevate them to close friend level, you’ll need to share time and space. Most likely, your closest few are those who you see regularly and with whom you do fun activities, says Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. Being available and having the energy to hang out are huge determinants to who makes it into the inner circle. A long-distance friend or one who is going through a major life change might not have the same time and space as you do for maintaining that deep relationship.
Having a reliable routine, like attending a weekly yoga class or grabbing coffee before work, ensures you’re seeing each other regularly, Hall says. Even something as casual as a spontaneous movie night together, Dunbar says, is enough to keep up the consistency. Knowing what’s going on in a person’s life from week to week or month to month helps you better connect in the moment and gives you opportunities to follow up with a quick text in between hangouts. “Knowing another person’s schedule is an act of intimacy,” Hall says.
Each of your close friends can fulfill a different role in your life, Bonior says. One friend may be the one you talk with about work stuff, another you confide in for relationship advice. “There’s not going to be one single friend that’s going to cover all those bases,” she says.
The most important thing to remember about these deep friendships, Dunbar says, is that they require effort. “These are very time-costly,” he says. You can’t expect to have intimacy with someone without spending time with them, knowing what’s going on in their lives, laughing together, and sharing in the hard times, too.
When just a few friends isn’t enough
While there are no hard-and-fast rules about how many close friends a person should have, a telltale sign you need more is if you feel lonely, Franco says. “Because that’s a sign that you’re not getting as much social interaction as your body needs,” she says.
Focusing on your community can help blunt the effects of loneliness. Joining a parent-teacher association at your kid’s school or getting involved with activities in your apartment building fosters a sense of belonging and connectedness “even if you have a best friend that lives far away from the neighborhood,” Bonior says. If you just moved to a new city or are a first-time parent, use these transitional life stages or identities to determine what types of people you can develop relationships with.
An easy and low-stakes way to bolster your social life is to engage in casual conversation with acquaintances and familiar faces — fellow parents at your kid’s soccer practice, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, a hairdresser — which has been shown to improve happiness. These low-stakes relationships have the potential to blossom into close friends, but you don’t have to know someone super well to reap the benefits of interacting with them: Research shows that people are happier and have a greater sense of belonging after chatting with an acquaintance. However, the healthiest “social diet” is one where you interact with folks whom you know well in addition to those you don’t.
Hall agrees that deeply investing in a few people has little downside so long as you’re turning to more than one person, since that sole confidant may have other obligations or conflicts preventing them from being there for you all the time.
If you’re feeling isolated, Hall points to studies that found that supporting others and communicating affectionately helps combat loneliness. So if you’re thinking of sending that encouraging text to a bud you fell out of touch with but who you know is going through a rough time, do it. “You benefit and you grow by the process of investing in that relationship,” Hall says. “I believe we have a fundamental need to belong and to be connected to one another, and if we nourish that need through acts of service to one another, we’re healthier people.”
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