I don’t need 150 friends. Why do you?

It takes courage to be in a relationship — of any kind. Whether it’s offering a seat to a stranger on the bus, or it’s offering your heart to a person you feel a deep, intimate connection with — relationships require vulnerability, openness and a spine of steel. It makes you wonder why we as humans have this desire to be in the presence of others. Clearly, we must be glutton for punishment, because no sane individual would choose this as a regular life occurrence; never knowing whether your efforts (no matter how benign) may land on the intended receiver. But since the assumption is that we are human, and our overwhelming need and desire is to be with, engage with, love with and grow with other humans — how can we maintain our relationships without feeling emotionally beat down, jaded and clinging to the proverbial all-or-nothing relationship? Some of us genuinely desire connection; and some want it, but for whatever their life experience and zodiac sign — are incapable of maintaining healthy social relationships.

I remember how easy it was in my younger years to make friends. In fact, I can’t remember a time before the age of 10 when I couldn’t just walk up to another child and say, “do you want to play?” and experience rejection. This of course, has its exceptions, seeing as I was, and still am a bit of an introvert; which means that any child I did approach was very much like myself. As I aged, not much else changed, except that I ventured out to connecting with individuals from different social economic statuses, backgrounds and personality theories, and for the most part was received in kind. Fast forward to my years as an adult (let’s say over 30) and things look remarkably different. Similar to my younger years, I keep my community of friends tight and exclusive; which allows me to connect with individuals on a deeper level. Not that there is anything wrong with having 100 close friends, but being the introvert that I am; it just doesn’t work for my sensibilities. But is it possible that there is a psychological reason behind the need to have many friends versus a small handful? Is one a better option for our emotional stability? Or even our physical health? Evolutionary Psychologist, Robin Dunbar has a theory.

In the early 1990’s, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar proposed a theory about the nature of healthy and happy relationships in humans based on the number of stable individual relationships in their immediate social circle. That number lies just between 100 and 200 individuals, but is often cited at 150 since the brain in not capable of maintaining a close connection to more. Dunbar describes what constitutes stable relationships as “…people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”. Of those 150 individual relationships, the most crucial of those is just around 15, which typically includes family members, best friends and partners. But what does this number say about the quality of these relationships?

Dunbar uses his bar scenario to connect with the masses; but, do you really want to base your relationships on drinking habits? Perhaps a different way to look at relationship stability and quality is by looking at how balance comes into play. To nurture any relationship requires attention, dedication, sincerity and communication. Something that is often overlooked in close relationships is the give and take aspect. By emphasizing balance on these areas, relationships will naturally grow stronger and more fulfilling.

Dunbar’s number is just one theory about human relationships and how the amount of people in our lives can affect our emotional and physical health. Even though I maintain a small, close-knit community of relationships, I don’t think I would trade them up for 100 more. How about you?