The secrets of lasting friendships in our complex society

In early 2020, just before the pandemic began, I met a woman who said she practices “aggressive friendship.” It takes a lot of time, but she is the person who regularly invites friends to her home, organizes events and outings with her friends. What a fantastic way to live.

I thought of her while reading Robin Dunbar’s latest book, Friends. If the author’s name means anything to you, it’s probably because of Dunbar’s number. His finding is that the maximum number of meaningful relationships most people can have is around 150. How many people are invited to an average American wedding? Approximately 150. How many people are on the average UK Christmas card list? Approximately 150. How many people were there in early human hunter-gatherer communities? About 150.

Dunbar argues that it’s a question of cognitive ability. The average human mind can maintain about 150 stable relationships at any given time. These 150 friends are the people you invite to your big events—the people you’re pleasantly altruistic about.

He also argues that most people have a circle of around 15 close friends. These are your everyday social companions – the people you go to dinner and to the movies with. Within this group is your closest circle of about five friends. These are the people who are ready to give you tireless emotional, physical, and financial help in your time of need.

Dunbar argues that the closeness of a friendship is affected by how much you have in common. “You’re twice as likely to share genes with a friend than with a random person in your neighborhood,” he writes. People tend to make friends with people who share similar tastes in music, political opinions, professions, worldviews, and sense of humor. You meet a new person. You invest time in getting to know this person and in which circle of friends you will place him or her.

Time is a crucial element in friendship. Jeffrey Hall, an expert in friendship psychology, studied 112 first-graders at the University of Kansas and found that it took about 45 hours of presence in the company of another person to go from acquaintance to friendship. Going from casual friend to meaningful friend took another 50 hours over a three-month period, and getting into the inner close friend circle took another 100 hours.

People generally devote much more time to their inner circles than to their outer circles. Dunbar found that over the course of a month, people devote about 8 1/2 hours to each of their five closest friends, and they devote a little over two hours a month (basically a dinner or lunch) to the next 10 Who. complete their 15-person circle. On average, they devote less than 20 minutes a month to the other 135 people in their larger circle of friends.

These are average values. Each of us has our own style of friendship. Extroverts spend their social energy with more people and have more, but weaker, close friendships. Introverts invest in fewer people but bond with them more.

The other crucial factor in friendship is social skills, which we don’t take seriously enough as a society. This has become a passionate belief for me over the past decade. Social life is fast, complex, and incredibly cognitively demanding. Americans have only recently started teaching social and emotional skills in schools, and there are many reasons to believe that living online is eroding these skills.

But our happiness in life, as well as our health and fulfillment, depend to a large extent on our ability to skillfully understand and be considerate of others. Much of the bitterness and alienation in our country stems from the fact that our social skills are inadequate for the complex society in which we live today.

Dunbar and his colleagues Neil Duncan and Anna Marriott studied conversations other people had in cafes and other places and found that two-thirds of conversation time was spent talking about social issues. Dunbar’s research also suggests that the average person can expect a close relationship to break up about every 2.3 years. That’s about 30 adult relationship breakdowns — usually over things like a lack of nurturing and poor communication.

I find Dunbar’s work fascinating even though, like so much social science, it focuses on what can be quantified across populations, so that what is special and unique about each friendship is overlooked.

Most of these investigations were conducted many years ago. Reading it in the context of COVID, I often felt like I was seeing a lost world. Everything seems so fragile. As we gradually return to normal life, this might be the moment to take stock of friendship and be aggressively friendly.

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times. The secrets of lasting friendships in our complex society

Joel McCord

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