There was a story recently in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that declared: “Admitting you don’t have a huge social circle, as Victoria Beckham has done, is one of the last modern taboos.’’
Mrs Beckham said she relies on a group of five friends – what the author dubbed “the five friends club” – rather than a large swag of hangers-on and acquaintances.
As far as social transgressions go, having a small, reliable group of friends is hardly up there with marrying your poodle or drinking instant coffee, is it?
In fact, Beckham’s attitude is perfectly healthy. As far as close friends go – the people who you count on to rally around when life’s on the nose – five is the magic number.
UK anthropologist Robin Dunbar proved it 20 years ago: human beings are limited by their brain size and ability to process social information to knowing about 150 people, and for our close friends to number five.
Dunbar included intimate partners and close family members as in the fold.
Recently an MIT study supported Dunbar’s claims by looking at the phone calls made by 38 million Europeans – just in the way detectives do when investigating a murder – and found that they were consistently calling the same four or five friends.
So what does it mean if you claim dozens of close friends, all of equal value? It means you have spread yourself socially and emotionally too thin, and that you’re bound to find yourself feeling abandoned and let down when you hit a period of genuine need.
This was the case for Sydney designer Lisa, 26, who asked for her surname not to be published out of sheer embarrassment.
“I had hundreds of Facebook friends and had a pretty hectic social life,’’ she says.
“Then I had a bit of a health crisis and realised I didn’t have anyone I could to talk to. When I ended up in hospital, I got plenty of best wishes and likes on social media, but the only one who visited me was my mum.’’
Lisa says she realised, “I had to almost start over.
“Slow my life down. Get to know people better and make them matter to me.’’
Professor Julie Fitness is a Macquarie University social-evolutionary psychologist and editor of the journal Personal Relationships.
She told The New Daily that people like Lisa, who are living a social whirl, risk having a horde of, “fair-weather friends who will cheat you and not be there for you when the chips are down and you need support”.
Having exactly five friends isn’t the point. Three to five appears to be a healthy range, while having only one or two can mean sharing the load with too few people.
“A lot of people say they have no close friends at all,” Professor Fitness adds.
“Some don’t have a strong need and are self-sufficient, but others respond with loneliness. Being without the right kind of connections can be very bad for your health.’’
However, research shows that having selfish or overbearing friends can make you sick too. One study found a poor choice in friends increases the risk of cardiac disease to levels similar to those experienced by smokers.
So, from time to time, take a good, hard look at the people in your five friends club – including yourself – and make sure everybody is deserving of membership.