How many connections do you really need?
For years, studies have shown that loneliness is a risk factor for chronic diseases and reduced lifespan.
In fact, research shows that single people don’t tend to live as long as married couples.
Of course, there’s the practical aspect of having a spouse help look after you.
But the companionship of friends and family appears to influence parts of the brain that relate to physical health, too. (One of the many ways the mind and body are connected!)
Just take the recent isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic as an example. Some research found that people worldwide had a whopping 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic’s first year.1
And—that makes sense. After all, a key to your well-being is talking with others about your concerns, feelings, and thoughts. That includes family members as well as any outside connections, such as friends and therapists (anyone you feel close enough with to share intimate details).
But how many connections do you REALLY need?
Is there a certain number of relationships that can help IMPROVE all aspects of your health?
And how do you FIND those relationships, especially in a post-pandemic world?
Well, let’s explore those questions together…
As with most things in life, the answers depend on the individual. I know people who are amazingly self-sufficient…and others who depend on many friends to get through their day.
That said, there is a way of calculating how many relationships (acquaintances, friends, and family) you can successfully fit into your life at any particular point.
It’s known as Dunbar’s Number, and it was developed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.
Dunbar discovered a correlation between the brain sizes of various primates and the size of their social groups. He extrapolated that correlation to the human brain and concluded that the average person can comfortably maintain 150 relationships at a time.
Obviously, that seems like a LOT. But let’s consider how Dunbar defines “relationships.”
In his 1998 book, Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language, he explains relationships as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
But when it comes to CLOSE friendships, the number is much smaller.
Dunbar has developed “layers” of friends within the total of 150:
The first layer consists of the people you’re closest to, typically loved ones. Dunbar suggests it includes up to five friends and family members. (Being able to reach the deepest level of intimacy with a person requires significant focus and time.)
The next layer can have another 10 people that are considered your closest, most loyal social companions—the ones you can always rely on.
The third layer could total up to yet another 35 people that you simply trust.
Leaving another 100 people in the outer, more superficial “acquaintance” layer.
How to feel less lonely
Dunbar’s Number aside, any feelings of loneliness indicate you’re not getting as much social interaction as your body needs. Therefore, you may need more connections.
If that sounds like you, the good news is that you don’t have to go far to find friends…or friendly acquaintances.
Simply getting involved in activities with neighbors can foster feelings of belonging.
You can also network through family members. For instance, you can talk to fellow parents or grandparents while standing around at your grandkid’s sporting events.
(I remember having informal discussions with former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, whose daughter was on the same soccer team as mine during the late 1990s. We were both commuting long distances from home to new jobs—but talking to him about it made me feel less isolated in the circumstances.)
Because the truth is, you don’t need to know all of your connections very well in order the gain the benefits of social interaction.
In fact, even interacting with your hairdresser, massage therapist, or other personal care providers has been shown to improve happiness. While you’re essentially a client, these kinds of “low stakes” relationships have the potential to develop into real friendships—or simply continuously provide a social outlet.
I also recommend reconnecting with old friends, even if they’re physically distant. If you’re fortunate to keep in touch with friends going back to childhood, that adds a special emotional dimension to your life.
Deepening your friendships
Of course, investing more deeply in some close friends should also be part of the picture.
One test of a close friendship is that you don’t feel the need to put on a front or to “perform” when they’re around. You can be yourself without the need for self-censorship. These friends can make you feel authentic, comfortable, energized, restored, relaxed, valued, and even vulnerable (in the sense of being open).
But when it comes to intimate connections, try to be able to turn to more than just one person.
A sole confidant may run into other obligations that can prevent him or her from being there for you all the time, or when you really need someone.
Not to mention, there may be a time when you’re both going through challenges—and need to lean on someone else.
Also, different friends may fulfill different roles in your life. One friend may be on a collegial level where you talk about work and professional issues. Another friend may be more suitable to confidences about your personal relationships.
And, needless to say, serving as a close friend to someone else is an act of service that helps counter your own loneliness. Just as close friends help support you, you feel better by helping support them.
It’s one thing to say to yourself you have friends…and another to actually reach out and expend the time and effort to BE a friend.
While many people’s schedules require planning, doing things together spontaneously and casually can be enough to help keep friendship continuity. At the same time, sharing and knowing someone else’s schedule can be an act of intimacy.
I also encourage you to send out a few random “acts of love.” If you notice a friend is going through a hard time—or you simply haven’t connected in a bit—why not send them something special, like a note or treat, to help lift their spirits?
Now, after more than two years of the pandemic, you may find yourself somewhat lost and between friendships.
Ultimately, you may need to choose between a pared-down social circle…or becoming overwhelmed trying to reconnect to make up for lost time.
You may also find that you don’t need as many friends as you once did. Especially as you get older.
In our youth, having a large number of friends can help shape your world view. In middle age, research shows that people who regularly interact with 10 or more friends tend to have higher levels of psychological well-being.2
But you need not keep a long list of active friends as you get older.
In fact, relationship experts say the biggest emotional, mental, and physical benefits can occur by simply going from having no friends to having one good friend.
In other words, don’t feel like you have to stretch yourself thin trying to reconnect with anyone and everyone. Just make sure you have someone.
As the song goes, friends can be both silver AND gold.
SIDEBAR: Networking vs. friendship
The question of “networking” is a little different. For example, the exercise “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is meant to illustrate that every person has some connection with every other person through an intermediary number of six other people. In my case, the number is actually one because I often sat next to Kevin Bacon’s father at civic dinners in Philadelphia, where the elder Mr. Bacon served as city planner!
“Friends are equally important to men and women, but family matters more for men’s well-being.” J Epidemiol Community Health. 2013 Feb;67(2):166-71.