Are you the kind of person who has just a few very close friends? Or do you find new friends everywhere you go? Perhaps you’re somewhere in between. Some of us use the word friend casually, while others are very particular in labeling someone else a friend. While there are lots of ways of "doing" friendship, a friend is generally someone who is a source of reliable emotional support and companionship. Over the months that I’ve been researching for a book on the biology and evolution of friendship, one question has come up repeatedly: Is one approach to friendship better than another? And by extension, how many friends do you need?
You absolutely do need some. As recent headlines have declared, society — American society, anyway — is suffering an “epidemic of loneliness.” This has real health consequences. We are evolutionarily geared toward social connection, and our brains and bodies react badly to its lack. Feeling socially isolated has been found to be as dangerous for your health as smoking or obesity. And the difference between having even one or two good friends versus none is where the most significant health benefits are found. A recent study following teenagers into early adulthood found that those with a few close friends had less social anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms than those with wider circles, perhaps because they didn’t spend as much time worrying about popularity.
Importantly though, there is a wide range in the types of friendship networks that people build over their lives. Why does this matter? For one thing, it’s useful to recognize your tendencies, especially if they might put your health at risk. But also, the better researchers understand the complexities of real-life social interaction, the more effectively they can use that knowledge to help people. Future studies could use the friendship categories that have been identified to follow individuals over time and work out the likelihood that certain styles are associated with different levels of loneliness, well-being, and cognitive functioning.
A team of German psychologists, led by Martina Miche (now Martina Gabrian) at the University of Heidelberg, worked with nearly 2,000 adults ranging in age from 40 to 85. They found that friendship styles fell into four categories (an expanded version of work done a decade before by American sociologist Sarah Matthews):
1. Discerning Friendship Style.
These are people with a few very close friends. Emotional closeness is high. The friendships tend to have lasted a long time, and these folks are less likely to form new friendships in mid-to-late life.
2. Independent Friendship Style.
Those with an independent style don’t maintain that many friendships either, but they’re also less likely to be emotionally close to the friends they have. They’re content to socialize casually. Often their friendships are circumstantial, formed with people they know from school or work, or as neighbors, but not maintained if circumstances change.
3. Selectively Acquisitive Friendship Style.
These are the people who are out there meeting new people all the time. Some in their circle are intimate friends, some are much more casual, but they are all thought of as “friends.” Acquisitive people also tend to have friendships of varied duration — some last decades; others are more fleeting and circumstantial. Selectively acquisitive people, however, are somewhat choosy about which friendships they maintain over longer periods of time, as compared to unconditionally acquisitive people.
4. Unconditionally Acquisitive Friendship Style.
This group has the largest number of friends of the four types. Although the emotional closeness differs friend to friend, it is, on average, relatively low. There’s also a wide range of friendship duration in this group. Overall, this group is more about socializing than emotional support.
In Gabrian’s study, the discerning friendship type was most common, and independent was the least prevalent. Physical health, the amount of time a person had lived in the same place, and the number of contacts with friends in a day all predicted friendship style, as did education levels. Education in particular appears to matter, because it often leads to better social skills. Higher income levels make it easier to socialize more widely — at restaurants and concerts, for instance — and to maintain friendships over longer distances. By contrast, those in poor physical health sometimes retreat from the social world for emotional reasons, or are physically less able to go out.
Do you see yourself in these categories? I do. Someone like me, who has lived in the same city for years, is in relatively good health, and has a college degree, is more likely to be in the selectively acquisitive group — and that sounds about right. But I know people who fit in each category.
Whatever your style, the most critical thing to remember is how important it is to maintain at least one or two quality relationships with friends whom you can call on when you need them.
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Copyright: Lydia Denworth 2017.