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Friends are important.
Yeah, yeah, I know: the only thing surprising about that is nothing. But how important are friends really? They’re critical for happiness. (I’m not even gonna quote stats on that one because you know it’s true.)
Let’s up the stakes a bit, shall we? Julianne Holt-Lunstad reviewed 148 epidemiological studies with a combined total of over 300,000 patients and looked at who died. So we’re not splitting hairs here, it’s black and white, life and DEATH. (Hey, it’s death we’re talking about here. I earned that caps lock.)
The studies asked patients tons of questions to see what correlated with who died. Weight, how much they drank, what they ate, amount of exercise, air pollution, etc, etc. The reason I’m so casual about what the questions were is because you can all but ignore most of them. Only two things made a huge difference: frequency of social support and how integrated they were in their community.
Only other thing that even came close was smoking. Not much else mattered. Even after having a heart attack or stroke, it was people with more friends who had a 50% greater chance of survival. Oxford professor Robin Dunbar, Sorcerer Supreme of Social Science, explained the results thusly:
It will no doubt get me into trouble with the medical profession, but it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that you can eat as much as you like, drink as much alcohol as you want, slob about as much as you fancy, fail to do your exercises and live in as polluted an atmosphere as you can find, and you will barely notice the difference. But having no friends or not being involved in community activities will dramatically affect how long you live.
Maybe you’re looking for something a little more timely and relevant? Fair enough. One factor in how well that COVID vaccine helps you may actually be how many friends you have:
That loneliness really does have adverse consequences for your immune system was shown by Sarah Pressman and her colleagues at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. They found that loneliness among freshmen students resulted in a reduced immune response when the students were given a flu vaccine.
So if you’re not minding your friendships you’re not the single dumbest person on the planet — but you better hope that guy doesn’t die. Seriously though, we’ve all suffered to varying degrees from lockdown measures and our natural animal socializing instincts have withered in captivity. We could use some help.
It turns out there are some rules to friendship and we better learn them so I don’t have to use the caps lock again. Who is gonna bring the info? Robin Dunbar is professor emeritus of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. His new book is “Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships.”
Let’s get to it…
Studies show the average person sends Christmas cards to 154 people. Survey data from The Knot says the average wedding has 144 guests. Average hunter-gatherer tribe? 148.4 people. Typical size of medieval English villages? 150. Average number of Facebook friends and email contacts? Between 150 to 250…
Seeing a pattern? Robin found that nearly every study out there shows “natural human communities and personal social networks seem to have a typical size of about 150.” Pretty neat, huh? But why 150? Because family. When you look at traditional societies without modern contraception living in a tribe of three generations (kids, parents, grandparents) you end up with – yeah, that’s right – about 150 people. That number is wired into us pretty deeply.
Some are gonna say, “But I only have like 5 close friends. Maybe 12 people I really care about.” But that fits the model too. It’s not just one big lump of 150; it’s concentric circles. Most people have about 5 friends they contact weekly, roughly 15 they talk to monthly, approximately 50 they hear from every six months, and 150 they reach out to annually.
The math majors may already be ahead of us – it’s a fractal pattern with a scaling ratio of 3. And you see that same ratio in many animals from giant noctule bats to Columbian ground squirrels. These groupings are as consistent and eerie as crop circles. Look around and you’ll see them. That group of roughly 15? When social psychologists Christian Buys and Kenneth Larsen had subjects make a list of the people whose death would really upset them, the answer was 12. How big are juries, sports teams, military units and the number of Apostles? Around 12. Not exactly 15 but close enough to show you something is going on here beneath the surface.
You almost never see math like this in behavioral science. The social world is not as random as we might think. The Mighty Oz has spoken: there are consistent rules lurking beneath the surface of our relationships, ones that we’re not consciously aware of. As my credit card company has frequently informed me, math doesn’t have an appeals process. So we’ll be much better off if we understand the hidden rules that underlie our relationships.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So what else can we learn from Robin? Well, if you don’t take care of those relationships, they’re gonna go away. Friendship is fragile. So how do we stop the losses?
Nobody has ever said, “I’d like to lose more friends” just like nobody has ever said, “I wish they would record this podcast live in front of an audience.” Despite that, you’re going to lose a good friend about every 2 years.
Our data suggest that, on average, you could expect to have one terminal (i.e. unreconciled) relationship breakdown every 2.3 years.
Six months of separation from a friend and they drop from a higher circle (like the closest 5) to a lower one (like the circle of 15.) And this isn’t true for family. Friendship is more fragile and needs more care. Yeah, I know you’re connected on social media, where you “like” their photos and do your personal-brand bonsai pruning, but, looking at the data, Robin feels this just slows the decline. We need face-to-face contact otherwise your subscription to Netflix may be your longest relationship.
You gotta be deliberate and stay in touch. You want to be consistent. Maybe not as predictable as a Hallmark movie, but reach out regularly to the friends you want to maintain. Let them know they matter.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, so what are most of our friendships missing?
Simeon Floyd and Nick Enfield looked at 1500 conversations where people were asking for stuff. You know how often people said “thanks”? 5.5% of the time. Sound oddly low? It is — because all the conversations they studied were with friends and family. We show more gratitude with strangers than those we’re close to. Ouch.
We simply expect family and friends to accede to our requests as a matter of course as part of the friendship ‘deal’, and so don’t need thanking. Indeed, we often don’t even preface our requests to these people with a ‘please’, never mind a ‘thank you’ afterwards. We simply expect them to do those favours for us out of obligation. Check it out for yourself. Expressions of gratitude are for strangers or less close friends whom we wouldn’t normally expect to behave altruistically.
A little gratitude can go a long way in maintaining relationships. And if you screwed up, apologize. If time really did heal all wounds there would be no dead people. So say you’re sorry when you mess up and don’t let grievances build.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Dunbar’s Number gets all the hype but, somewhat ironically, he’s found that quantity doesn’t matter as much as quality. So how do we up the closeness?
You know those friends where even if you don’t see each other for a long time the feelings are still there and you can just pick up where you left off? Yeah, those awesome friendships. What’s the alchemy behind them and how do we create more of that?
A study of communes and Facebook friends showed similar results here. Frequency of contact wasn’t as important as depth. Yes, at one point in the past these people spent a lot of time together but the critical element seemed to be sharing emotional experiences and events with one another. Talking about what each of you were going through in trying times. When people shared intense ups and downs it left a mark that wasn’t as susceptible to erosion by time.
So be vulnerable. Open up. Ask for advice. Share what you’re going through, emotionally. Quality relationships are built by quality interactions. That’s what creates those friendships where you can just pick up like no time elapsed.
It is doubleplusungood wrongthink to neglect face-to-face time. Now that the pandemic is winding down and we’re getting vaccinated, make plans to hop in the car or get on a plane to see those that matter. Otherwise, the majority of your important relationships aren’t flirting with disaster — they’re getting married to it.
(To learn the most fun way to make your life awesome during the pandemic, click here.)
So quality beats quantity but the math still matters in other ways too…
When you dive down into the extended effects of the Dunbar number, it’s quite clear we have something closed to a fixed “friendship budget.” Yes, extroverts may have more friends but their friendships are, on average, less close than those of introverts. We can only give so much to so many.
On average, we spend 3.5 hours a day on social interaction. Your closest 5 people get 40% of that. The other 10 people in the group of 15 get the next 20%. And the 135 people in the bigger circle each get less than 20 minutes a month — about 37 seconds a day. Oh, and when you get married you lose two close friends. Yeesh.
The lesson here should be painfully obvious. Assuming you don’t have an extra Eye of Agamotto lying around, you can’t alter time, you can only distribute it differently. We don’t need to see everyone every day or every week but be aware who is important to you and prioritize them.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Ouch. Not a lot of time to go around. So how do you make that time with friends as scientifically awesome as possible?
What do the best get togethers have in common?
Four things emerged as common factors predicting how satisfied they were with the occasion: the number of diners (more is better), the occurrence of laughter, reminiscing about the past, and the consumption of alcohol.
No, I am not recommending you curb stomp your liver with too much booze but there’s good advice here. The more the merrier. Get nostalgic. And save a seat for the funny friend. But that wasn’t all…
Ditch the small talk. As with those magic friendships that survive distance and time, you wanna open up and get meaningful. It doesn’t just make a gathering more fun, it actually improves overall life satisfaction.
They found that students who spent less time alone and more of their conversation time in meaningful (as opposed to ‘small’) talk reported having much higher wellbeing. Matthias has since shown that these results extend to adults… Although the amount of time in small talk didn’t correlate with how content they were with their lives, the time spent in meaningful conversations did predict life satisfaction.
(To learn more about how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
So we know all friendships aren’t created equal and that your investments in those friendships can’t (and shouldn’t) be equal. So what tip can we use to improve the highest of high, the holiest of holy, the one true friendship that rules them all — the BFF?
When Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler analyzed the data from the Framingham Heart study they realized that our behavior is powerfully (and often unconsciously) influenced by those we are close to. And, again, the effects were not evenly distributed.
They found that your chances of becoming happy, depressed or obese in the future, as well as the likelihood that you would give up smoking, were all strongly correlated with similar changes in your closest friend.
Best friends are mountain climbers tied together by a rope. When they ascend, so do you. And if they fall, it’s more likely you will too.
When either of you improves, you both do. It’s a virtuous cycle. So help them become a better climber on the mountain of life. And work on your own climbing skills, too. Reach the summit together.
(To learn more about how to motivate yourself to exercise, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn about that last thing we need from our friends. Something more deeply wired than you ever guessed and something we missed so much in 2020…
Here’s how to make emotionally intelligent friendships:
What’s that final piece we’ve been missing? Touch your friends. That’s nice and warm and fuzzy but it’s also deeply scientific.
Your body is loaded with afferent c-tactile (or CT) neurons. These are a very specialized and distinct part of your nervous system. How specialized? I’m so glad you asked. CT neurons respond to one thing. Just one: a slow touch of exactly 2.5 centimeters a second. And studies show if a baby is crying and you stroke it at 30 centimeters a second, they’ll just keep on crying. Switch to 2.5? They calm down.
What’s so special about 2.5 centimeters a second? That’s the speed at which our primate cousins groom one another. These neurons have been around far far longer than we have. They’re waiting for that signal that says somebody else is looking out for you, that they care. They’re wired deep into your endorphin and dopamine systems and when triggered, they flood you with feelings of warmth, connection, love and safety.
Just another example of the unwavering mathematical rules that underlie our relationships. We ignore them at our peril. Because of COVID, we’ve been apart from our friends for too long — but that’s all the more reason to show some of that gratitude.
I’m very thankful for the friends who helped keep me sane during the pandemic. I’d list them but I’d feel bad if I left anyone out. Rest assured I will be showering thanks upon the many incredible heroes of the BCU (Barker Cinematic Universe). And you should do the same with the superheroes in your life.
We’re the species that pays for gym memberships but then looks for the closest parking spot so we don’t have to walk much. Don’t be that lazy when it comes to your friends. More than a century ago, William James wrote:
Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendships and intimacies…and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to “keep” by force of mere inertia.
Social distancing has put us deep in the red when it comes to hugs, high-fives and gratitude. It’s time to get back in the black.
So now that the COVID threat is dying down, let’s not return to normal — let’s return to better.
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