How many true friends does the average person have in a lifetime?
How many do you need at any given time to be happy?
There’s no straightforward answer to those questions.
Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s 150 (that’s Dunbar’s number which we’ll discuss shortly), or some other amount…
…but this is not an entirely satisfactory answer.
The truth is: the number of friends YOU need right now and across your lifetime is the number of friends YOU are content with.
What’s ‘enough’ for you might be too few or too many for someone else.
And that ‘enough’ number is likely to change depending on which stage of life you are in.
If you’re worried that you don’t have as many friends as you should, ask yourself whether this is a genuine concern based on loneliness or because you believe – or have been told – that you need more.
People can live very happy and peaceful lives with a very small inner circle.
And people can live very unhappy lives despite a very large circle.
So let’s delve a little deeper to discover how many friends is the right number for you.
After studying the size of the human brain in the 1990s, anthropologist Dr. Robin Dunbar concluded that there is a limit on the number of people with which we can maintain a meaningful social relationship.
That number is 148, though it is often rounded to 150 for ease.
The key word here is meaningful.
You may know the names and faces of many more people than this, but it is unlikely that you’ll be in any real contact with most of them.
But Dunbar has since gone further to explore how emotional closeness influences the way we might categorize those 150 connections.
He suggests that you are likely to have no more than 5 people in your critical top layer – your inner sanctum of companionship.
Depending on where you are in your life, this layer might be made up of parents, siblings, a partner, or best friends.
You might then have up to a further 10 close connections who you see regularly and whom you hold dear. These might be good friends or family members.
The next layer down consists of an additional 35 people whom you often interact with and would consider inviting to a special occasion such as your birthday.
Then there are 100 people who you know relatively well, but who you might not see too much.
Dunbar and his colleagues have investigated the accuracy of these numbers using various means and they seem to stack up on average.
But here’s the limitation to Dunbar’s Number: what good is an average number when an individual like you is asking how many friends they need?
So is there any value in these layers?
What’s really important is those first two layers: your inner sanctum and your close companions.
These 15 people are the ones who will provide you with much of the emotional wealth that you really need in life.
To different extents and in varying circumstances, these people will bring you the greatest feeling of connection and the biggest potential for happiness.
These are the people you will turn to for support and comfort when you need it.
They are those who really mean something to you.
But as we’re about to explore, this number might be more than some people need and fewer than others would like.
Your Personality Type Matters
Some people like peace and quiet.
Others thrive amongst the hustle and bustle.
Some people are content to just sit and be.
Others need to be constantly doing something.
Some people like one on one time with those close to them.
Others prefer to get everyone together in one big gathering.
While it’s an oversimplification, we might differentiate these people as introverts and extroverts.
And the number of connections these two personality types need in each of their Dunbar Layers is likely to differ.
Introverts might be perfectly happy with just one or two people in their top, most important layer.
Extroverts might like five or six.
And in each of the subsequent layers, introverts might be content with fewer friends than Dunbar suggests, while extroverts might even stretch those limits.
At the wider layer, where Dunbar sees around 100 people on average, it might largely depend on what pastimes or passions a person has.
Your stereotypical introvert might prefer to spend their time reading or gardening, for example, while extroverts might be a part of a sports team that automatically brings a whole host of connections.
Similarly, the career choices of different personality types can influence how large their circles get.
An extrovert might look for a position amongst a large team, perhaps in sales or marketing where they spend a lot of time interacting with colleagues and clients.
Introverts may choose to work as a freelance contractor, getting to know their clients, yes, but interacting with fewer people in general.
Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert is not the only personality trait that may come into play with regards to how wide your social circles go.
Open-mindedness, charisma, empathy, honesty… these are just a few of the characteristics that will impact how many people you attract into your life.
You may also like (article continues below):
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- 7 Alternative Social Activities For Those Who Have No Close Friends
Where Are You In Your Life?
How many friends you need or want in your life will change depending on what stage of life you are in.
Young children have mommy, daddy, and perhaps brothers or sisters in their inner circle.
While they do have further circles for their wider family and other children at kindergarten, these are small and the level of emotional closeness is less than in adults.
As children grow older, their inner circle may potentially include a best friend, while other layers expand as they meet more and more people through school and hobbies.
Their second layer of 10 people may shift regularly and they place far more value on these people than when they were younger.
Young adulthood is perhaps when we have the largest social circles of our lifetime (at least, in meaningful terms).
Old school or college friends are likely to still be an important part of life, while colleagues join the party as you enter the world of work.
Then the slow process of social pruning begins.
As your free time shrinks, certain existing connections weaken and those people may move from one Dunbar Layer to a lower one.
Perhaps you are very career focused.
Maybe you settle into a committed relationship and even start a family.
You might rediscover a bond with your parents that weakened during adolescence and early adulthood.
You drift apart from friends, people move away, life happens.
Often, by the time you reach your middling years, the number of people in your lower Dunbar Layers can shrink.
You have fewer close friends, fewer good friends, and fewer acquaintances.
And by the time you reach your old age, there’s a strong chance that you’d have drifted from many friends over the years.
And yet, despite our total number of friends declining as we age, older people are happier than their younger counterparts.
As this TED talk explains:
As we age […] We invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better, so we’re happier day-to-day.
While this TED talk doesn’t state it specifically, one conclusion that you could draw is that as we get older, we invest more in the relationships that matter to us.
After all, what could be more emotionally important than the people we love and care for?
This brings us back to those critical top two of Dunbar’s layers.
These groups of people, who are by far the most important people in our lives when we are children, once again grow in importance.
The lesson for the rest of us is that we should pay greater attention to the small number of close relationships than the larger number of more casual relationships.
The Continual Shift In Friends
As we’ve already hinted at, the actual people in each of your friendship layers will likely shift over time.
Even the makeup of your inner sanctum can change, particularly as we age and lose the generations that came before us.
And the further down you go through the layers, the more change you are likely to see.
This comes back to which of life’s stages you are in and what your precise circumstances are.
Perhaps you move a large distance away from your current base of friends. This inevitably weakens some connections whilst forcing you to make new ones.
These new friends may start in a lower layer of emotional closeness and move up as they grow in importance in your life.
Or maybe you have children and forge new connections with other moms and dads.
Because of the shared bond you have over your children and the amount of time you may spend together, these people can quickly become central figures in your life.
A new job means new work friends and, quite often, a shift of those from your previous employer from higher to lower layers.
So, you see, there is an ongoing flux in your friendship needs.
The Effect Of Social Media
The digital world has transformed how we even begin to define a friend.
From Twitter to Facebook to Instagram and to whatever is to come, we now collect new “friends” or “followers” on an industrial scale.
This poses two problems with regard to how many friends we think we should have:
1. We can see how many friends other people have. If we have fewer friends, it can make us feel unpopular.
2. We look at how many friends we have and how many of those people we actually spend any significant time with and we worry that some people accept our friendship in the digital world, but don’t want to be our friends in the real world.
Social media tricks our minds into believing that we are closer to these people than we actually are.
We see their updates and photos and these give us a window into their lives.
We think we know them.
But we don’t. Not really.
Many of the people we are connected with on social media are just names and faces to us.
They may never have been much more than that, of course. But they might also have once occupied one of the more important of our friendship layers.
What we have to remember is that we get the vast majority of our emotional well-being amongst the small group at the top of our pyramid of friends.
And that many of our virtual friends are so distant in terms of emotional closeness, that they can hardly be considered friends at all.
So we must not allow our focus to wander too far and believe that these people can provide the kind of human connection we long for.
Returning To Emotional Closeness
In this article, we’ve argued that Dunbar’s Number as an average has little value to the individual.
Where we have agreed with Dunbar is in the idea that the people in our lives occupy different layers of importance.
These layers are all based around emotional closeness: how connected we feel to someone on an emotional level.
And this brings us back to our original statement about how the right number of friends is the number you feel content with.
You need as many friends as is necessary to fulfil your emotional needs.
For some, this means a tiny handful of important people and a scattering of good friends.
Others might find they need far more friends to provide for their various emotional needs.
Part of it will come down to just how close you feel to any given person.
If you and your partner truly are the best of friends, you can confide in them and they provide you with much of the love you feel you need, you might shift some other people out of your top layers into a lower one.
That’s why some people ‘disappear’ when in a relationship. They are getting so many of their emotional needs met by their partner that they become less dependent on their friends or family to meet those same needs.
But if, despite loving them very much, you and your partner aren’t as emotionally close as you’d like, you may actively seek other connections to provide that need.
So, just to drive the point home one last time…
No one can tell you how many friends you need.
You should not feel obliged to make a precise number of friends.
You only ought to focus on creating the right number of connections at each of the various levels of emotional closeness in order to feel content and fulfilled.
Your layers might contain 2, 6, 15, and 20 people.
Or they might contain 5, 12, 40, and 110 people.
Both are right, neither is wrong, they just represent different people.
Find your unique composition of friendship layers – this is how many friends you need.
Quit worrying about filling a particular quota.