Do You Have Enough Friends?

Best friends sharing a moment
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How many friends do you need to be happy?

That sounds like the setup for one of those zen life lessons, but stick with me for a minute and I’ll give you an actual number.

Friendship is vitally important, and not just because friends make life better. They can also help you live longer, stay healthier, and become a better person. Wild, right? It’s tough to make new friends, especially as you get older, but it turns out that friendship isn’t about quantity. You only need a few close friends to feel fulfilled. And the number is probably even lower than you think.

As this year draws to a close, take a look at your gift list–and your social media–and consider how many of those people are truly your friends. While you’re at it, don’t be afraid to cut the toxic people out of your life.

The Social Trap

In the age of social media, it’s easy to measure how many “friends” we have by the number of connections we make. At one point before I left Facebook, I had about 500 friends on the platform.

Of those, a very small percentage were people I cared about deeply. The rest were former classmates and coworkers, for the most part, whose lives I watched from afar but did not directly participate in. Many were hidden by Facebook’s algorithm anyway, so I probably only engaged with the same fifty people on a regular basis.

It turns out that our brains have a maximum number of people we can care about. The neocortex can only process so many relationships, and the upper limit is between 100 and 200. Everyone else you “know” on social media? Yeah, your brain doesn’t see them as individuals. They’re just groups labeled things like “camp” or “church.”

Even mega famous people like Kylie Jenner realize this. Despite having over 200 million followers, she only follows 160 accounts. Kim Kardashian only follows 112 people. Selena Gomez follows 153. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is more than twice as social with a whopping 389 follows.

Sure, you can argue that these celebrities are using their Instagram accounts for business, not actual connection with friends. But it’s still interesting how close their numbers are to the scientific number of relationships we’re capable of maintaining.

How Many Friends Should You Have? Let’s Ask a Philosopher!

The average adult has just three lifelong friends, another five people they enjoy hanging out with one-on-one, and another eight folks in their social orbit that they’ll spend time with but won’t seek out individually. Five close friends seems to be the limit, so statistically one of these people wasn’t actually as close to the others as they thought:

He stated that we all have friendships of utility–those would be people like neighbors, coworkers, and classmates who are helpful and pleasant, but who you don’t really want to hang out with.

Friendships of delight are the people you can have a good conversation with or enjoy a shared activity. They’re not your bosom companions, as Anne Shirley would say, but they make up an important part of the friendship ecosystem.

Finally, Aristotle believed that we can make friendships based on goodness or virtue that offer mutual benefit to both parties. That sounds super dry, but basically it means that you bring out the best in each other. You support each other in tough times and celebrate during the good ones. In other words, these are your BFFs.

These relationships form a pyramid, with casual acquaintances forming the base. Most of your Facebook friends list lives here. And that’s totally okay! In fact, it’s normal and healthy. You only need a handful of close friendships to feel happy and fulfilled–but it’s important to realize that there’s no conversion rate. 100 acquaintances does not equal one close friend.

The Most Valuable Thing You’ll Ever Have

What I’ve realized over the years is that long-lasting, close friendships built on trust and respect are so much more valuable than anything else in my life. Three to five close friends–kindred spirits, as Anne Shirley might call them–is all we need. In fact, it’s all we can handle as mammals with limited brain processing power.

The trick is to make the effort to reinforce those connections. I haven’t always kept in contact with my oldest friend, whom I met in middle school *cough* years ago. We’ve been chatting more since the pandemic started, and in non-COVID years we get together whenever they’re in town. I’ve only recently realized how lucky I am to have known someone through multiple decades of my life.

Taking the time to reach out to old friends and seeking out new connections with people you like is always worth it. Is this cheesy? Yes! Does my inner cynic want to interject a snarky comment right about now? You better believe it. Doesn’t change the fact that my childhood Girl Scout troop was right all along:

Make new friends, but keep the old.
One is silver, the other is gold.

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