Today, we live in a world where we are connected to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, but the quality of those relationships is limited. We interact casually with people on social media, but the number of close friends we have is very small.
Researcher Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford investigated human relationships, and noted that human group sizes tend to scale in a clear way. We have three to five people that we consider our close support network, up to 15 close friends, 50 people that we might invite to a dinner party, and a slightly bigger group (100 to 200) that we would invite to a big party. We struggle to form connections with any more people than that, so having a huge list of friends on social media does not mean that we actually have ‘a lot of friends’.1
The Value of Quality Interactions
Dunbar found that the average group size in a hunter-gatherer society was 148.4 individuals. Even in the military, companies tended to be small units.2 There’s a reason for that. Small groups tend to perform well together, and quality interactions are important for our quality of life.
While Dunbar is the most well-known scholar to focus on human interactions, researchers have been investigating friendship and its value for mental health for a long time. One literature review published in 1985 noted that friendship is important for mental health, particularly in adolescence.3 Strong peer relationships help people to develop well into adulthood and are important for helping people maintain good relationships later in life.
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Adults need strong friendships too. Friendships can help to protect our mental health, giving us someone to talk to if there are problems, and simply providing a distraction and an outlet for someone who is struggling.4 For some, having a close friend to talk to can be as valuable as having a therapist.
Isolation is a Crisis
Loneliness is a growing problem in Western societies. Many people do not have close friends, because they do not have the time to devote to maintaining those relationships. Loneliness can cause short term discomfort and stress (for example, if we feel left out of a broader gathering), but it can also cause huge issues if someone is going through a stressful period such as loss of a job or a bereavement, and they do not have someone that they can turn to during that time.5
Building Relationships as an Adult
It can be difficult to build new relationships as an adult. People need to spend 90 hours together in order to form a friendship, and 200 hours together to become close friends.6 Most people simply don’t have the time to build that kind of relationship later in life, at least not by accident. Relationships can form if someone is willing to put the time into building them, but it takes work to do so. The way that society is structured these days means that a lot of people are reluctant to put in that work, or don’t see the value. They are so busy chatting to a large group on social media, and that detracts from building closer relationships face to face.
Coping in Times of Distress
Sometimes, people have a support network, but then lose access to it when they are going through stressful times. Take, for example, someone who was in the military who becomes medically discharged and loses touch with their military friends. Or, a divorcee who loses friends because they were friends with the spouse as well and the relationship breakdown leads to people ‘taking sides’. These scenarios and other similar ones are all too common, and it can be tricky for people to get through the transition period.
Good self-care practices, such as taking up a new hobby, practicing yoga and meditation, using aromatherapy or massage, or just finding something soothing and creative to do can be very helpful. Using something like the Zen R blend, with frankincense and ylang ylang, known to have a relaxing effect, can be helpful.7
The long term goal should be to find a support network. For some people, that network could come from the people that you hang out with after yoga class. For others, it could come from joining a running group or a reading society, or from participating in interest groups found on Meetup.com or other similar sites.
In the early days, those relationships will be superficial, and they may not all work out. Out of a large group of people with shared interests, though, you should find one or two close friends, if you allow them to develop organically. Be there for those friends when they need you, and they will be your rock in troubled times.
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