Do you ever feel disappointed when you don’t get an invite to something? Do you feel guilty about not keeping in touch with your university pals? I mean, how many friends can one person really have?
It wasn’t that she stopped liking the people… she just had fewer hours available for them. Naturally, I was the beneficiary of her shifted priorities, but I noticed the same thing happening to me. I enjoyed the time with my new partner, but I too felt guilty that some of my friendships were drifting apart.
I started to notice my friendship circles changing with every life change: As I changed jobs, changed hobbies, or moved, for example, my friendships seemed to shift. Was I just not trying hard enough to keep up these relationships? Was there something wrong with us? Were the friendships not as strong as I had thought they were?
Here’s what I found.
It turns out people write more about manager-employee relationships than they do about personal friendship capacity. Lots of people wanted to know about how many direct reports a manager could have, and it seemed to vary from just a few up to about 40 (though that was a rare opinion).
I did manage to find one article – as essay from a book, in fact – that addressed the question of friends. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist did some looking at the relationship between primate brain sizes and social group size, and he found a relationship: the bigger the brain, the bigger the community. He proposed that our brains may in fact have limited capacity to know other people in detail. Someone actually gave his finding’s a name: Dunbar’s Number, which is about 150.
In addition to the cognitive challenge of keeping track of all those people, relationships take time and investment. In his words, “You have to DO stuff together in order to build a relationship, and the quality of the relationship is proportional to the amount of time you invest in it.” Again, because there are limited hours in the day, there’s a theoretical maximum.
Dunbar says there seems to be a consistent pattern, and it scales roughly by a factor of 3 each time: 5 Intimates, 15 Good Friends, 50 Close Friends, 150 Friends. He supposes that the numbers continue beyond that: 500 acquaintances, and 1500 people who you could put a name to a face. Plato even proposed that 5300 people was the ideal size for a democracy. As the circles expand, more people are included, but the quality (or closeness) of the relationship decreases.
As life unfolds, when we change our hobbies or location, for example, the way we use our time changes too, and our social circles change to follow suit. My wife and I are already feeling the shift as our son enters pre-school. It’s natural!
I decided to draw out my own social circle rings, and name those that were closest to me. It was a revealing exercise! I realized that when my time was limited, I was often neglecting the relationships that I valued the most – the exact opposite of what I wanted to be doing. While it may be elementary-school Joel’s dream to have 100 “best friends”, this activity definitely helped grown-up Joel realize it’s an impossible dream.
Give it a try for yourself – sketch your inner circle, your Saturday night buddies, your good friends, community pals, and keep going. Does it make you notice anything?
For me, it was actually really inspiring to see so many names of great people in one place! There were too many to keep up with regularly (goodbye guilt!), and I started feeling more appreciative of all my friends, regardless of how “close” they were. Everyone has a role to play, and I know I play many different roles for others too!
Ultimately, clarifying who was in my inner circle helped me prioritize my time and energy better. I hope it will do the same for you!