The psychologist’s fascinating study of friendship finds that the quality of our relationships determines our health, happiness and chance of a long life
You may not have heard of Robin Dunbar. But you will, perhaps, know of his work. Dunbar, now emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is the man who first suggested that there may be a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can comfortably maintain stable social relationships – or, as Stephen Fry put it on the TV show QI, the number of people “you would not hesitate to go and sit with if you happened to see them at 3am in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport”. Human beings, Dunbar found when he conducted his research in the 1990s, typically have 150 friends in general (people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history), of whom just five can usually be described as intimate.
Friendship, as Dunbar reveals, requires investment. It ‘dies fast’ when not maintained
In his new book, Dunbar revisits and unpicks this number, by which he stands; and he brings together several decades of other research in the area of friendship, some of it his own, some that of anthropologists, geneticists and neuroscientists with whom he has worked. It can’t be definitive: the possibilities in this field are surely limitless. But for the reader, it sometimes feels like it is. Why do most women have a best friend? Why do many men struggle to share confidences? Why is it so painful when we fall out with our friends? Above all, what effect do friends (or a lack of them) have on our mental and physical health? Think of any question you might have and you’ll find some kind of an answer to it here. What you may feel in your gut, it will back with science. Its central message, however, may be summed up in a sentence. In essence, the number and quality of our friendships may have a bigger influence on our happiness, health and mortality risk than anything else in life save for giving up smoking.
Dunbar could not have known that his book would be published in a time of such loneliness, and some readers may find what he has to say, in this context, reassuring. Personally, I was comforted to know that missing my friends and family to the crazed extent that I do is not, after all, a sign of incipient madness (friendships, for the purposes of his book, often include relationships with kin as well as romantic ones). To take just one example, without them to touch and to talk to, my endorphin system is activated far less often and, as a result, I’m lacking the mild sense of analgesia they induce in me (endorphins are the brain’s painkillers; brain scans have shown that the feeling of social warmth we get from our friends are the same feelings we get of physical warmth when we hold a warm object). But it’s also alarming to consider what effect the lockdown must be having on levels of depression and anxiety, as well as on, say, cognitive decline (an impoverished social life increases the risk of dementia) – and how difficult it might be to remedy the situation when we’re finally released. Friendship, as Dunbar reveals, requires investment. It “dies fast” when not maintained. Distance, even in the age of the mobile phone, has a catastrophic effect on it.Robin Dunbar: we can only ever have 150 friends at most…Read more
Away from all this, the most fascinating parts of his book are surely those that touch on gender. It’s almost comical how often he’s able to confirm old stereotypes, for better or worse (like many women, I despise the notion that my sex is more intuitive – don’t call me emotional – even as I am rather proud of it). Does it feel, in the case of that man you love, that when you’re out of sight, you’re also out of mind? Well, sadly, you probably are (according to one study, the only factor that significantly influenced the perceived intimacy of men’s relationships was frequency of contact). Do women really have more friends than men, and are their relationships with them more intense? Yes. We have much higher expectations of such relationships, especially in respect of reciprocity (mutual support) and communion (self-disclosure), something that is possibly reflected in the divorce courts, where nearly two-thirds of divorce petitions for heterosexual couples in 2017 were submitted by women, and three-quarters of petitions for same sex couples were submitted by lesbian couples (as opposed to gay men).
Where a book like this can’t go is deep inside friendship: its particular intensity; its singular ease, but also its intricacy; the way it can wax and wane. The territory of novels and movies. But it will make you think about your own friendships, and perhaps it will cause you to worry, too, about those who seem (how?) to do without pals. I don’t believe that childless people like me are necessarily better at friendship: of my five closest female friends, two are mothers; my closest male friend is a father. But we all know couples who have sorely neglected their friendships, and we detect a certain sadness rising from them like toxic gas. Life is long. No one person can give you everything.
To have a genius for friendship is a great thing – or even just an average-size talent for it. I panic more and more about this current loneliness. The lack of gossip. All the tributaries of narrative flow that have lately run dry. The silence is deafening. How will we ever catch up? But I tell myself that we are all just waiting, biding our time. One day quite soon, a bell will finally ring and we will rush into one another’s arms, like so many schoolchildren. Our brains will fizz once again, and it will feel – a word even Dunbar uses – euphoric.