Why We Need Friends Now More Than Ever

Studies say we need friends in order to be happier, healthier, and to live longer — but in this case, is less more? 

In an age obsessed with popularity, where how many friends you have on social media has become a bragging right, one has to stop and wonder: What are the value of friends, and can’t we have too many? Many of us are familiar with Dunbar’s Number, which states that we can only maintain 150 relationships in our minds at any given time in our lives. But many experts say we are better off with a quality-over-quantity attitude, which may come as a relief to those of us who, after the gotta-collect-’em-all approach of our 20s, have entered a phase of wanting fewer, but closer friends.

As a recent Quartz piece explained via the work of Tim Kasser, people have two predominant attitudes toward friendships: one where popularity (being liked or admired by many) is the goal, and another where affinity (or striving for deeper relationships) was preferred. As it turns out, those who longed for popularity were “less happy, less healthy, more depressed, and used more drugs.” And those who put in the time for deeper, more meaningful relationships had the opposite finding: They were happier, healthier, and less depressed. In fact the Mayo Clinic suggests that having close friends can increase your happiness, self-confidence, and sense of purpose, while reducing stress. They can also help you cope with traumas and illness: In a 2006 study, women with breast cancer who were without close friends were four times more likely to die as a result of breast cancer than women with 10 or more close friends.

Whatever our carefully curated social media profiles would have you believe, we are actually growing more isolated as a culture. We have fewer close friends than we did 30 years ago. In 1985, most people had three good friends they could confide in, and now the “number of discussion partners has gone from three to zero, with almost half of the population (43.6 percent) now reporting that they discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person.” So we know having friends is important to our health, and that a vast number of us don’t have anyone to call on — should we just start hoarding as many friends as possible?

It’s been well-documented that as adults leave their 20s behind for their 30s, their social circles tend to shrink. Is this because so many choose to get married and have kids in their 30s, or is it that we lose our tolerance for flakey fairweather friends in favor of the evergreen sort? Probably both. As we become more of ourselves, we become less dependent on our friends to tell us what we’re like. Cutting the fat is an important part of growing up — who needs superfluous relationships, where you spread yourself so thin that you don’t spend enough quality time with the people who really matter? Social connection, one study said, is “a leading factor in the promotion of health, well-being, and longevity, [and] requires social knowledge and the capacity to cultivate intimacy.” The more sophisticated our social knowledge, then, the more meaningful our friendships. The older and wiser we become, the more value we place on people who we know will be there for us.

I’m a lucky broad. I know that I have a handful of people I can call if I need to talk, meet up with for good times, and who would protect me if provoked. I cherish these people and have cultivated our friendships for varying amounts of years because I know that our love and respect is mutual, and goes deeper than some of the more superficial friendships I’ve had in the past. As I reached 30, I reflected on these friendships: Who would really be there for me, no matter what? I might not have the 150 Dunbar recommended, but I’m pretty happy with my lot. They inspire me to be my best self, provide a sounding board, and make me laugh harder than anyone else. And that reliability, in this unreliable world, may be the best gift they have to give.


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