How Many Friends Do You Need?

By Scott Westerman
“We have many acquaintances but very few friends”
“When I find myself fading, I close my eyes and realize my friends are my energy.”

THE ESSENCE: To build a happy life, we need to cultivate authentic relationships with those rare few who genuinely resonate with us. Put these people at the top of your list and nurture them as often as you can.

Friendship: a reciprocal relationship of trust and obligation.

How many friends do you need?

Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford tells us, “We devote 40 percent of our limited social time each week to the five most important people we know, who represent just 3 percent of our social world and a trivially small proportion of all the people alive today. Since the time invested in a relationship determines its quality, having more than five best friends is impossible when we interact face to face, one person at a time.”

Some might argue that technology has changed all that.

This past week, I found myself in simultaneous text message conversations with three different people, responded to about a hundred tweets and interacted with at least thirty of my Facebook friends. Facebook, alone, has turned the time consuming challenge of sending birthday greetings into a quick, easy and very personal process. I used to receive a half dozen birthday cards. This year I got over 300 birthday wishes on Facebook. Between my MSU and Gmail addresses, I process about 400 emails a day, a dozen of which get responses of more than a paragraph in length.

I may not be your normal 56 year old where technological connectivity is concerned, but this volume of social interaction is probably the norm for the average 20 year old. For example, I know an MSU Junior who regularly logs over 5,000 text messages a month. Thats an average of 13.8 messages in her typical 12 hour day.

The relationship guru, Keith Ferrazzi, believes that there are upwards of 200 people out there who will be the key drivers of our happiness or suffering in this life. It’s up to us to figure out who they are and to build mutually beneficial relationships with them. And as he writes in a recent blog post, “mutually beneficial” is a two way street.

“It’s easy to fall into the ‘broadcast’ mentality in our virtual communications, when what’s needed is a conversation…  Be present, ask for feedback early and often, and when you get it, respond. Also, when considering your communication strategy to any segment or individual – whether a marketing campaign, a presentation, or just a coffee – make sure to make listening as much a part of the plan as speaking.”

Text messages, Twitter and Facebook make it easier to interact with a lot of different people. But the best relationships are all about quality, not quantity.

Robin Dunbar warns, “Put simply, our minds are not designed to allow us to have more than a very limited number of people in our social world. The emotional and psychological investments that a close relationship requires are considerable, and the emotional capital we have available is limited.”

That’s why it’s very important to be constantly assessing the return you’re getting on your relationship investment.

This is not the cold “what can you do for me” process that seems to typify many business relationships these days. What it’s really about is deciding which people in your life resonate with you. It may also mean making the hard decision to de-prioritize unhealthy or unproductive relationships that get in the way of your ability to grow and contribute to a more positive world.

When we resonate with some one, what we give and what we receive are amplified together ten fold and radiate positive energy outward into the world. We often can sense this when we see two people who are genuinely in love. Their vibe is contagious and you come away from the encounter carrying some of that love with you.

A team that resonates is almost always a winner. And building a handful of truly cherished resonant relationships can be among the most rewarding and energizing experiences of your life.

Who is on your most-important-people list?

So take some time this week to write down the names of the people who are closest to you, followed by that larger list of friends who resonate with you in some way. Then make a list of your aspirational relationships, people you admire who you don’t yet know personally. These are the people who deserve a piece of your most precious resource: your time.

Next, keep a log of the people you interact with this week. Who did you text? Who did you call? Who did you ping on Facebook? Who’s tweets did you answer? And most importantly, who did you spend time with, face-to-face?

Place your log next to your list of friends. How closely do the two compare? If your time investments are out of balance with the important people in your life, consider making some changes.

To build a career, we need to constantly scan our world for mentors, teachers and resources that can help us grow professionally. Find ways to add value to their days and they will, in turn, add value to yours.

To build a happy life, we need to cultivate authentic relationships with those rare few who genuinely resonate with us. Put these people at the top of your list and nurture them as often as you can.

When it comes to acquaintances, the more the merrier.

Really good friends are few and far between.