But even if we can rattle off the benefits of companionship and why it matters to us on a personal level, we don't often consider the science of friendship. That's where journalist Kate Leaver's book, "The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World," comes in.
Leaver's book goes beyond the basic benefits of friendship and delves into what friendship means, why certain friendships are more important to us than others, the significance of friendship throughout our lives and how they change over time, how to maintain and maximize the benefits of friendship, and how friendship can serve as a cure to the loneliness epidemic that permeates contemporary times.
The human nature of friendship
Humans need social interaction. We're social beings by nature, so the desire to build friendships is biological. Basically, we're wired for friendship.
Without the joy friendship brings along with emotional and moral support, life's difficulties can be harder to bear.
How many friendships can we handle?
Even though friendship is a basic necessity to our wellbeing, there's a limit to how many friendships we can maintain. A 2018 study conducted by Robin Dunbar of Oxford University suggests that we're able to manage roughly 150 social connections. We can handle about five very close friends, 10 close friends, 35 friends and 100 acquaintances.
Leaver notes that we don't possess the cognitive capacity to manage many more friends beyond the 150 mark. Friendships "require temporal and emotional commitment, or they simply disintegrate," says Leaver, who interviewed Dunbar. Regardless of how many friends we may want in our lives, "we're still beholden to our neocortex."
It's not as if were incapable of keeping track of everyone, but it's that psychologically we're only able to develop and sustain so many relationships that are meaningful in our lives. Cognitively we're only able to give so much from an emotional standpoint. It has to do more with how much meaning and value we can provide to one another, rather than some sort of hard cap as far as how much time we're willing to dedicate from a practical standpoint.
Working on friendships and a meaningful life
Those numbers are something we should think about when working on valuable friendships that might need mending, or even the potential for new friendships. This doesn't mean you necessarily have to make a sort of pros and cons list of friends or figure out which companion you should substitute in place of another, but it does mean you should think about the friends that matter to you most, especially if you feel you have a friendship that's beginning to peter out.
When working on friendships, ask yourself, "What does this person mean to me, and how will this person's presence or absence contribute to my wellbeing from the standpoint of living a meaningful life?"
Making sure you sustain healthy friendships isn't just about basic happiness; it's about fulfillment and living your life in the most meaningful way you can.
Meaningful friendships and loneliness
Meaningful friendships also have a strong correlation with loneliness. In Leaver's book, she writes that we can feel lonely if we're lacking in relationships that allow us to be our authentic selves. An article in The Week focused on the loneliness epidemic notes that one definition of loneliness is "the emotional state created when people have fewer social contacts and meaningful relationships than they would like — relationships that make them feel known and understood."
The correlation between loneliness and meaningful relationships further stresses the importance of sustaining and building connections that add value to our lives. This especially holds true as we get older.
Friendships morph and deteriorate over time for a variety of reasons; it's an inevitability. Friendships come and go, and it can be difficult to create meaningful bonds as we grow older — though it's not impossible to make new friends as an adult.
If you're trying to build new relationships with people, consider how that person can become a meaningful part of your life (and vice versa). It doesn't mean that friendships necessarily have to be transactional-based with meaningfulness as the currency — and there's something to be said for spending time with people simply because they're good company — but it's important not to lose sight of what friendship actually is: a relationship that not only brings you comfort and companionship, but purpose to your life as well.
We need friends to show us what we want from life. Friends offer us direction, guidance, feel-good times, support, and clues about understanding who we are. The power of friendship is its ability to provide our lives with meaning that would otherwise be unattainable. That's reason enough to work on the friendships that matter, and to build new ones as we go along.