You've Got to Have Friends, But How Many?

Is that really a friend or is just an acquaintance?

Posted May 13, 2010

Research out of the University of Chicago finds that loneliness can raise blood pressure in people over 50, which is interesting.

But equally interesting: the researchers were clear that the loneliness has nothing to do with the number of friends a person has. The measure used to detect loneliness, called the UCLA Loneliness Scale, isn't about number. People didn't rate themselves according to whether they live by the credos "the more the merrier" or  "I never met a stranger." Ratings were more along the lines of, "How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone" and "How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?"

So, like we've been saying, loneliness isn't just about being alone; it's how we feel about being alone.

We probably all know what it's like to feel lonely surrounded by people at a party. And to feel fulfilled in an empty house. And we agree that quality trumps quantity in our friendships. Nice to have it validated by the professionals, though. People with just a few friends are not sad and lonely. As long as our friendships--however many or few--are close and meaningful, we're good.

The word "friend" is tossed around too freely these days, anyway. I prefer to distinguish among friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Also between real-world friends and Facebook "friends."

What is a true friend? We probably all have our own definitions. For me, it's someone I don't feel alone with. Who doesn't bore me. To whom I feel comfortable turning when I need to be talked off the ledge, and for whom I am glad (even honored) to return the favor.

I will say all those things about only a few people in my life. And then there is a second tier of friends. I like and care about them, consider them friends, but they are not privy to my deepest thoughts.

"Dunbar's number," proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in 1992, is a commonly used assessment of the number of relationships we are cognitively capable of keeping straight; that number is 150. I probably have a network of that many people in my life. I certainly wouldn't call them all friends, though.

In fact, I'm an avid Facebook user but I'm starting to feel like I have too many "friends" even there. I'm not terribly far above the number at which people might judge me desperate. Research reveals that the ideal number of Facebook "friends" is 302. That's enough so you don't seem pathetic, not so many that you seem needy. But I have accepted "friend" requests from people with whom I feel no particular connection. In some cases, these strangers have become virtual friends. Some have even become real friends.That's cool. But others have just remained little faces in a box. We have nothing to say to each other. And having lots of "friends" doesn't make me feel better about myself. It makes me feel kind of...phony.

Besides, no matter how many "friends" we have, we actually interact with only a handful of them, according to Cameron Marlow, Facebook's "in-house sociologist." If you are a woman with 500 friends, you might post comments on the pages of about 26 and actually communicate with about 16. (For men, 17 and ten.) I've never done the math on my "friends," but that sounds about right. Those "friends" are the keepers. And maybe a few people I just find generally interesting.

The rest? Perfectly nice people, I'm sure, but I'm considering relegating them to LinkedIn, among my colleagues and acquaintances.


My book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released December 4, 2012, just in time for party/festive/family-togetherness season. You know you need it.

Please join me on Facebook and visit my other blog, Better Living Through Pithy Quotes.