David Beckham confessed this week that he can happily count his true friends on one hand “I’ve got three really good friends. It’s all you need. I’d rather have three really good friends than 20 good friends.”
So when most of us might boast friends into the triple figures on Facebook, an army more on Linkedin and still others following us on Twitter, how many pals do we actually need?
According to Professor Robin Dunbar, head of Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need, the maximum number of people we can realistically have personal relationships is 150 – a limit set “by the size of our brains”.
This number includes relatives and casual acquaintances putting the number of intimate friends, most of us will have at only five.
According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, friendship is a “distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other, for the other’s sake, and that involves some degree of intimacy”.
The reality is that most of us have successive ‘circles’ of friends. The inner circle of people we can call on day or night, then friends we socialise fairly regularly with, then colleagues and casual pals, and on the outer fringes acquaintances and people we stay in occasional contact with.
Our number of friendships peak at the age of 21 with 13 ‘best’ friends, 17 ‘close’ friends and 70 acquaintances. Plus the average 22-year-old claims to have as many as 1,000 friends on social networking sites.
As we get older we tend to become more selective about the people we let in to our inner circle: often friends slip by the wayside simply because lives diverge and the demands of work and family life mean less time to maintain all our relationships.
That doesn’t mean that friendship gets less important as we get older, research suggests that the less time elderly people spend engaged in social activity the faster their physical decline.
A study by Australian scientists found that having and maintaining a strong network of friends could help people over 70 to live longer.
The moral of the story? Spend time nurturing the relationships with people you can really confide in rather than adding every acquaintance on Facebook. Real friends will only stick around as long as they know that they are being appreciated.
Text originally published in An Focal xx10 8 March 2012)