Inside: If you’ve ever wondered how many friends you can have while maintaining your sanity, here’s the scientific answer.

Rummaging through your garage on a Saturday morning, you uncover a fraying cardboard box containing your high school paraphernalia. Rustling through the yellow-tinged pages of your high school yearbook, you cringe and feel nostalgic at the same time. 

As the memories of long-lost friends come flooding back, a pang of subtle guilt arises. You’ve lost touch with most people over the years. Sighing to yourself, you wish that you could have kept in better touch—but how realistic is that in today’s modern day and age? 

According to social psychologist Robin Dunbar, we are limited to how many friends we can manage at any given time. His studies show that our brains can handle about 150 friendships (known as Dunbar’s number) due to limitations in attention span and time. In reality, this number varies between 100 and 250 (hello, introverts?). 

How Many Friends Can You Have?

It turns out that all friendships are not created equally. And we can’t be friends with everyone—no matter how extroverted we are. Research shows that Dunbar’s number can be broken down into the following inner to outer circles:

  • 5 intimate friends consisting of our closest friends (or family members). They are the ones who would be at our side when we—or a loved one—get a terminal medical diagnosis, for example. Spouses and parents usually fall into this category. 
  • 15 close friends consisting of the friends that we confide in about our day-to-day struggles over a Starbucks caffe latte. We trust them to watch our kids and pets.
  • 50 friends consisting of the friends we invite to a July pool barbeque or holiday party. We might see them a couple of times a year, but don’t consider them close.
  • 150 casual friends consisting of the people we invite to once-in-a-lifetime events, such as weddings and funerals. We don’t see them often, but our eyes still light up when we do.

Each of these circles is concentric, meaning that it includes the previous circle. If your relationships look different, keep in mind that these numbers are loose averages, depending on our personalities and life stage.

Studies show that Dunbar’s number of 150 plays out in Christmas card lists, small villages, expanding businesses, military units, and online gaming environments. Sooner or later, we hit a limit as to the number of meaningful relationships that we can maintain.

This is one of the reasons we end up losing touch with so many of our high school and college friends. We have trouble keeping up with previous circles of friends, in addition to our current circle, especially if we move to a new city.

Fortunately, thanks to social media, we can now keep in touch with more people, maintaining more than 150 friends. 

Or can we?

How Long It (Really) Takes to Make a Friend

Friendships take an investment of time and emotional energy. As finite beings, we are limited in our ability to both maintain and make new friendships. 

The more friendships we have, the less time we have for each person. The deeper a friendship, the more time is required. And to make a new friend, it’s necessary to create extra space in our schedule. 

According to researcher Jeffery Hall, it takes around 50 hours for a relationship to move from acquaintance to casual friend status, around 90 hours to become a friend, and at least 200 hours to become a good or best friend.

That’s a lot of time in our busy modern world! So let’s examine the life of Jesus to see how He modeled his relationships.

Who Was in Jesus’ Inner Circle?

While Dunbar’s number is not prescriptive, it introduces us to the idea of our human limits. When Jesus became fully human, He became limited in time and energy like us. He had to prioritize His relationships, too.

Jesus had a small circle of 12 main disciples that He traveled with and preached to, some of whom went on to write books in the New Testament. At the same time, we see in Luke 10:1-23 that Jesus spent time with a larger, separate group of 72 that He sent into ministry.

As important as the 12 disciples were, Jesus maintained an inner circle of three intimate disciples, Peter, James, and John. He took these three up the mountain when He was transfigured (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). 

When healing and raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead, Jesus did not let anyone go in with Him except the three of them (Matthew 9:23, Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51).

Towards the end of His life before going to the cross, Jesus pulled Peter, James, and John aside in one of His most vulnerable moments in the Garden of Gethsemane. He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38, NIV).

Our innermost circle of friends are those who will be with us in our darkest moments.

The Truth About Online Friendships 

Contrast this intimacy with our world of ever-increasing online friendships. How many friends do you have on your favorite social media platform? 10? 100? 1000? Or more?

How many of them do you know beyond their latest vacation to the Bahamas? Who do you consider a good enough friend that you could call when you want to chat—for no good reason? Who would you call if you got a life-threatening medical diagnosis—when you, like Jesus, have sorrow to the point of death?

Historically, we spend 60% of our time with our inner groups of 5, 15, and 50 and 40% with the larger circles. With social media, we can now keep in touch with more people, maintaining more than 150 online relationships. 

Let’s enjoy hanging out with our online friends—they’re God’s blessing to us. But if we spend too much time liking and commenting online, our real-life friends get the leftover scraps of our time and energy. We run the danger of being “too busy” for them.

In addition, we miss the blessings of face-to-face interactions. The person on the other side of the screen can’t laugh with us when we capture a hilarious video that would qualify for next season’s AFV. Nor can they put their arm around us when our beloved family dog dies. 

Online relationships should be a supplement, not a replacement for face-to-face contact. Studies show that the more time some people spend on social media as a substitute for real-life interactions, the lonelier they feel.

Ironically, the more technology interconnects us in our work-from-home and Door-Dash-it-now lives, the more disconnected it leaves us.

6 Steps to Prioritizing Your Current Friendships 

Regardless of our current number of real-life and online friends, it’s important to evaluate how we invest our time and energy in our relationships. Your “personal” Dunbar number will be different from mine. It’s not possible to be all things to all people, and that’s okay. 

Here are 6 ways to reflect on and prioritize your relationships:

1. Determine who is in your intimate circle of friends.

Draw a circle and jot down the names of the people that you are closest to—the people you would first call in an emergency. This can include a spouse, parents, or other family members.

Recognize that God has graciously blessed us with these people and make a (re)commitment to them today. Your time and energy should go towards this group first.

2. Reconnect with people in your next layer of close friends.

Draw a larger circle around the previous circle. Jot down the names of people you consider close friends, even if you haven’t seen them in a while. Don’t neglect this group of people. It’s all too easy to lose touch after getting married, starting families, and taking on increasing responsibilities. 

Pray for direction and wisdom. Pick one or more people to reconnect with this coming month, considering your limits when deciding how many friendships you can maintain at your current life stage. Be realistic.

3. Schedule intentional time for friendships. 

In the U.S., we tend to prioritize work and immediate family, relegating friends to the backburner. Schedule time with friends and keep it like you would any commitment. Putting this on your calendar has the added benefit of giving you something to look forward to during the week, breaking up the daily grind.

If you have difficulty finding time, consider calling a friend during a time that you would normally listen to music or a podcast. For example, you could call a friend while driving to work, cooking dinner, or taking a walk. If time is still scarce, consider sacrificing some social media time to make time for a real-life friend. 

4. Stick your list in a visible place to pray for these friendships. 

Tape your list to your quiet time area, in your planner or Bible, on the refrigerator door, or bathroom mirror. The list will serve as a reminder that these people are the true priorities in your life, prompting you to pray for them regularly. Prioritize these people over any projects that you are working on.

5. Prioritize your online relationships similarly. 

Decide where you want to spend your online time. Stick to your preferred social media platforms and delete the rest. Narrow down your favorite groups/communities to interact in and actively participate there, rather than spreading yourself thin over dozens of groups.

Following Dunbar’s findings, prioritize most of your interaction on social media by interacting with your closer online friends, rather than commenting endlessly with strangers. 

6. Turn FOMO (fear of missing out) into JOMO (joy of missing out). 

Despite what social media might lead us to believe, we can’t be everywhere at once or keep up with everyone. Let go of the desire to be omnipresent and omniscient. We are not God—and this is freeing news! Whether offline or online, turn any FOMO into JOMO by cherishing your most meaningful relationships and being content with what you have.

It’s okay to turn down a social invitation that you don’t want to go to. Invest that time in people in your closest circles—or use the extra time to catch your breath. Don’t say yes, when deep down you mean no. 

It’s okay to unsubscribe to “friends” in your social media feeds. Clean up your feeds by only following people that enrich your life. (This has the bonus of reducing information overload.)

The danger of not being intentional about our relationships is that we end up rushing through an overcommitted or distracted life. We settle for superficial—or lack of—friendships instead. We miss out on the best that God has for us.

For we’re meant for intimate, authentic friendships. Jesus had different numbers of disciples and followers for different purposes. Let’s follow His example on layering relationships, for it’s the quality—not quantity—of our relationships that matters most. This way, when we flip through and reflect on our life yearbook, we will look back with no regrets.

Who is in your innermost circle of relationships? Which relationships do you need to let go of? Which do you need to invest more time in? 

To learn how to make new friendships, stay tuned for the next blog post.

Reflection:

“A friend to all is a friend to none.” –Aristotle

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

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