Friends make you happy, healthy, and they’ll be there for you when the rain starts to pour. But how many of them do you need? Turns out the show Friends had the science all figured out.
Back in the early 90s, British anthropologist Dr. Robin Dunbar came to an interesting conclusion: humans could likely only maintain social relationships with an average of 148 individuals due to the size of our brain’s neocortex, or what’s known as Dunbar’s Number. More social information processing demands require more cognitive resources, and we only have so much brainpower. Basically, we tend to top out at having 150 meaningful relationships in our lives, whether they’re family, friends, or casual acquaintances. Your Facebook might have hundreds or thousands of “friends,” but a good chunk of them, if not most, is out of mind.
Later on, Dunbar’s research led to the concept of “Dunbar’s layers,” where the emotional closeness between individuals was taken into account. This meant that your relationships looked more like layers instead of a cloud of 150 people. The closest layer has three to five people, the next layer has 15 people, then 50, and so on. That inner layer is what makes up your “vital friendships,” or your inner circle of close friends. These are people that you should have in your life to meet up with regularly, talk about personal matters, and maintain a strong emotional connection. Great things to together are recreational activities, volunteering, taking time to visit your city, even meditating and creating a sacred space to talk in and rejoin in your own home!
In the show Friends, each main character—Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, Monica, and Chandler—these five people in their life, making it a pretty decent model to follow on a biological and sociological level. If you can manage to maintain three to five close friendships in the same way, you’re far more likely be content. After all, who wouldn’t be better off with people who will always be there for you?
Do you absolutely need three to five friends to get by? Probably not, but you do need at least one. Isolation and loneliness is killing us all as we get older, so it’s vital you hold onto at least one BFF. If you don’t have at least one good friend, or you want to strive for that magic three-to-five range, it’s time to reach out and turn your acquaintances into friends. Ask people to grab coffee, see a movie, or have lunch. Join a local club or group, and don’t be afraid to touch base with old friends that may have fallen by the wayside. Just remember, to make and keep friends, you need to be there for them too.