If you want to live longer and better, invest in friendship. Having friends is “the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness,” according to Oxford evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The Dunbar number (150) is the average number of people one can effectively manage stable social relationships with at one time.
Based on circles of friends, the theory uses five levels of relationships. The five closest people are contacted about once a week, the next 15 people, once a month, and the 150-layer, once a year. The contact frequencies and emotional closeness all decline as the numbers of people in that layer increase. We all have a finite amount of social capital to invest in our whole network.
Maintaining a friendship requires time and cognitive capacity, but these relationships influence our physical health and mortality risk.
Health factors of friendship
People with good social relationships are 50% more likely to survive than those without. A 2012 study found older adults with high assessment for loneliness were 1.96 times more likely to die within six years than people with low levels of social isolation. It’s well known that lonely, depressed people are more likely to have poor health behaviors but it does not entirely explain the morbidity effect. Looking at many paths to this outcome, researchers think “loneliness alters physiology at a more fundamental level.” Only smoking has a stronger impact on survivability. Of course, it depends on the kinds of friends. People with bad habits can have an adverse impact on others.
Definition of a friend
Dunbar defines a friend as “people whom we make an effort to maintain contact with, and to whom we feel an emotional bond.” Whether the relationship is a friend, family, or significant other, it offers emotional closeness that you don’t get with an acquaintance or co-worker.
The definition includes family members and spouses/partners. Those with larger families will have fewer non-related friends due to our innate time and cognitive limitations.
“In the modern world, our reduced family sizes mean that we have many unfilled slots in our network capacity, so we fill these with unrelated friends.” – Dunbar
You have to start somewhere.
Researchers identified seven dimensions that are the basis for the average friendship:
- Language (or dialect)
- Where you grew up
- Hobbies and interests
- Sense of humor
- Worldview (religious, political, moral)
The more things you have in common, the more likely this person is a possible friend.
You have to put the time in
Relationships are built with logged hours and usually require a significant time investment. Time spent together builds closeness. There are some gender differences. Talking is a relationship-building activity for women, but it does not affect male friendships, which strengthen by doing things together.
Make new friends but keep the old
RSVP – Leave your house. Activities and social events are places to meet new people
Get involved – sports, hobbies, and interests can be the basis of a new friendship
Positivity – people who are positive in conversation are remembered as being positive people
Consistency – make time on your calendar to do things with close friends
Ask questions – Being a good listener “is the best passport you could possibly have to friendship,” according to clinical psychologist Linda Blair.
A 2017 study found that Facebook provided a social connection for study participants who ranged in age from 55 to 81. Researchers see the same layers of friendship with the same numbers in social media as in offline relationships. Facebook offers organization of people into different categories like close friends, acquaintances, school, and work. Typically, the closer the friend, the more frequent the communication (unless the close friend does not do social media). For many geographically isolated people, social media is a great benefit. It offers the ability to connect with family members whom you may never have met as well as friends from the past.
Now, go call a friend!