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Friendships: Are We Aiming For Quality or Quantity?

It is a widely accepted fact that the connections that we make with family, friends and work colleagues are important for our mental health and resilience: these are people that we can enjoy good times with, and help us when we need guidance through adversity.

But what about when these connections don’t feel meaningful? It becomes stressful when there are too many people to maintain proper contact with, or the people who we are seeing aren’t in fact the people that we really want to spend time with.

“I don’t get the chance to see people the people I really like, and we’re losing touch. It feels like I spend my time with the wrong people!”

British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar can explain why trying to keep up with too many connections gets difficult. He asserts that there is a cognitive limit to how many people we can be friends with at once, and that we can categorise them.


His book How Many Friends Does One Person Need discusses ‘Dunbar’s Number’, that is, 150 (give or take). This is the number of people can maintain relationships with, those you’d invite to a big party. Next is a collection of fifty, those you would have at a group dinner. Your two inner circles are the fifteen to whom you would turn for help and confide in, and finally your five closest contacts. The size of these groups remains the same, but individuals can drift in and out of each, or indeed, out of your life altogether.

The take home message? Enjoy group catch ups, laughs and dance floors with the circle of fifty or one hundred and fifty, but make a conscious decision that you won’t feel guilty about not seeing them as regularly.

Establish who are the people in your two inner circles, and write them down (remembering that they will likely change, and that’s ok). These are the people you should nurture: check in with them and do nice things for them.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t see them physically every week – these people will understand that there may not be enough time. Given that you’re probably very similar, they probably don’t have much time either! But it is such a nice feeling to get a reminder that these people are there, even if you can’t see them.

So take the time to send a message or make a phone call and catch up or make a plan to meet. It will make both of your days to know the other is there, and the guilt? Gone.

Rose Pennington