Counting Your Friends

If the last year of coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions has taught us anything, it is the massive importance of friends and socialization in our lives.  If the last week since my mother passed away on Tuesday night has taught me anything, it is how I am far less self-sufficient than I thought myself.  You may never have heard of Robin Dunbar or the Dunbar Number, but, then, that is why you are here, thoughtful reader, so that I can slip arcane facts into posts about current events which you can, in turn, use at your next dinner party or social gathering.

Robin 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, people we refer to as “friends” as a convenient shorthand; it’s called “the Dunbar number,” and it is 150.  If that seems like a lot, we need to define who is counted in that group, who qualifies as a friend.


Dunbar proposes it includes people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history; the comedian, actor, writer, television personality, brilliant raconteur, and personal hero of mine Stephen Fry, commenting on the Dunbar number, said it totaled 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.”  I should note that Dunbar suggests an average of five of our friends can usually be described as intimate — meaning they know something intimate about us (like we fantasize about Manny in Accounting on the third floor when we pleasure ourselves) not that we have been intimate (a euphemism for sex) with them.

In his new book, Dunbar stands by the number named after him in the 1990’s, and brings to bear several decades of other research by anthropologists, geneticists, and neuroscientists.  Call to mind any question you might have and you’ll likely find some kind of an answer here; what you may feel in your gut, Dunbar backs with science and research.  The book’s central message is simple:  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 not swimming with alligators.  To take just one example, without friendship (which for purposes of definition includes relatives we are friendly with), our brains release fewer endorphins; as a result, we miss out on a mild sense of euphoria we get from our friends (research shows the warm “fuzzies,” or just generalized happiness, we get from friends are the same feelings we get of contentment when we hold something warm like a cup of tea or a puppy; brain scans confirm the same electrochemical activity occurs in the brain).

It is alarming to consider what effect the restrictions of the last year, necessary for public health though they are, must be having on levels of depression and anxiety in society writ large, as well as on cognitive decline; Dunbar’s research indicates an impoverished social life increases the risk of dementia — friendship, Dunbar suggests, requires investment, it “dies fast” when not maintained.  The socialization of school and work and activities like going to the gym and seeing “that guy” or going to the grocery store and seeing a familiar-faced employee at the checkout counter is a part of our lives that is essential to human flourishing, even if we don’t know that guy’s or the employee’s name.

Necessity being the mother of invention, coronavirus restrictions have spawned new ways of socializing.  One gentleman I know attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings online via Zoom; I attend, when I am able, a weekly electronic Zoom “café” of LGBTQ seniors in the Coachella Valley where we’ve discussed everything from growing roses in a desert climate to the fun “tell us three things about yourself, only one true, and we’ll try to guess the true one.”  When my mother passed last week, my cousin Suzanne organized a virtual gathering via Zoom that allowed us to mourn as a family together in light of the fact that we cannot gather in person at a funeral due to restrictions in place in LA County.

No man, or woman, is an island.  That’s as true now as it was in 1624 when John Donne included the phrase in a line of verse:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Tomorrow would have been my mother’s 90th birthday.  I want to thank everyone who has reached out a hand in friendship at this difficult time, but no less remind us all of the power and importance of friendship.


Dunbar’s book is available at Amazon or at The Guardian online.

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