By MELISSA WELLHAM
How many friends do you have?
Not Facebook friends, real friends. People whose birthdays you can remember without the aid of social media, people who you’d have sent Christmas cards to back when you actually sent Christmas cards, people who you honestly care about.
How many do you have?
Science says you can’t have more than 150.
150. That’s very precise. Pray tell science, how’d you come up with this number?
Well, this number was developed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who wanted to figure out a way to see how many valued friendships people can have – a “proxy for meaningful social connection”.
He was curious to see not only how many people a person knew, but also how many people he or she cared about. The best way to find those connections, he decided, was to follow holiday cards.
Working with the anthropologist Russell Hill, Dunbar pieced together the average English household’s network of yuletide cheer. The researchers were able to report, for example, that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues.
The primary finding of the study, however, was a single number: the total population of the households each set of cards went out to. That number was 153.5, or roughly 150.
I initially thought that 150 seemed like too large a number.
150 people I wanted to send Christmas cards to? That seemed like a lot of postage when there are also actual Christmas presents to buy and Boxing Day sales to participate in. (I had my eye on a metallic snakeskin dress at Sportsgirl. What’s more important: friendship, or metallic snakeskin? Yeah, no competition.)
I was disbelieving, that is, until I sat down and wrote my Christmas cards at the end of last year (yes, I am someone who still does that). I wrote 120. And that’s the number I wrote after I cut down the list because I was getting bored of trying to come up with creative new ways of saying nice things about people.
The Dunbar number suddenly seemed very accurate – especially if I break the 150 down into the types of friends that I have.
According to Dunbar, these 150 friends are usually distributed along similar lines. You will have an inner circle of five or so friends – people you can call at any time of the day and night, about anything.
Then another circle of about an extra ten friends – the people you definitely want at your birthday dinner. Then another 35 people – your extended circle of friends, or friends from mothers’ groups, or other clubs. And then a final 100 – acquaintances. Filler friends.
There, 150. Boom.
There is a Portuguese saying that sums this up pretty accurately: “You have five friends, and the rest is a landscape.” Although, I want to be clear, that the landscape is beautiful and fulfilling and my life wouldn’t be the same without it (them).