Why you may actually be happier with fewer friends.
Expiry mate? It might be time to break up with (some) of your friends...and that’s okay.
COMPARE YOUR 21st-birthday party to your 30th. More than likely, your epic coming of age involved a bathtub filled with party ice and Bacardi Breezers for the 80 friends who had annihilated your parents’ lawn by the time the cops arrived to shut it down. The more recent milestone, on the other hand, was probably more along the lines of a wellness weekend/wine tour/private degustation for your five closest friends and their partners.
But if you’re worried, even a little, about your social roster having come down by 90 percent in less than a decade, don’t be. “You accumulate friends and you shed friends and you get closer at certain moments to some than others,” observed author Nora Ephron. “You have a huge bench of friends. And then that’s just not true.” It’s also just as it should be, according to a study by U.S. researchers who tracked the evolving friendship patterns of 222 people from young adulthood to middle age. Not only do we not need a vast friendship network in our 30s, the study found, but we may be happier without it.
Our quantity of friends matters most in our 20s, since so much of that defining first decade of adulthood is spent actually learning how to be one. The collective wisdom of the crowd is what gets apartments rented, careers decided on and tattoo-removal technicians selected, and when it comes to deciding what kind of adult
we want to be, a broad and eclectic network is where we find options. But, according to several American studies, by the time we reach our 30s, our reliance on “social information seeking” subsides and “identity exploration goals diminish”—which means, in plain terms, that we’ve seen what’s out there and we’re basically good now. That, plus a diminishing desire to go out eight times a week, removes the incentive to keep current with every exroommate, former colleague and Facebook random. And so begins the switch: Situational and peripheral friendships tend to fade out on their own unremarked, but as life choices are locked down, even close friends can find themselves accidentally out of sync.
The single most dramatic decline in the number of active friendships occurs when one party gets married, which—ironically, when you think about it—makes weddings also a giant farewell to your 100 most important people. Staying in a relationship with someone who went in another direction begins to require effort in a way it didn’t before. “A lot of women, when they’re young, feel they have very good friends and find later on that friendship is complicated,” says author Zadie Smith. “It’s easy to be friends when everyone’s 18. It gets harder the older you get, as you make different life choices.... A lot of women’s friendships begin to founder.”
All of a sudden, time is a thing too—specifically, not having any. Between the ages of 20 and 24, women spend an average of six and a half hours a week socializing, but how many women do you know in their 30s with a partner, children, career or all three who have six and a half hours to spare? Time is like friendship oxygen, and supply is short.
At first, the contraction of our social circle is so gradual that we may not even notice the number of favourites in our phone slipping toward single figures. Rarely is the selection itself even conscious. Instead, as British beauty columnist Sali Hughes wrote, “the curation of a gold-chip friendship squad is an unregulated, haphazard and serendipitous process.” But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the task of deciding which friendships we’re going to invest in and which we will let go of is one we should take on more mindfully.
On average, most people have a total network of 150 people and a tighter circle of 15 friends. But the number of very close friendships we’re able to sustain—the number that’s considered optimal for well-being—is just five (often including family members), according to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford. And when you consider the outsized impact those few intimates have on everything from our physical health to our overall happiness, “haphazard” suddenly seems like the wrong modus operandi. For many reasons—convenience, misplaced loyalty, a lack of current alternatives—we end up yoked to the pessimistic and perpetually sad, the flaky and self-involved, friends in constant need of rescue and friends who leave us feeling flat for reasons we can never quite pinpoint except that they always seem available to workshop our flaws and too busy to celebrate our successes.
Women are often described as “the social sex.” Being hard-wired for relationships makes us more receptive to their benefits and much more vulnerable to their complexities, it’s theorized. A brief, unpleasant interaction with a friend has been shown to raise a woman’s blood pressure but has no such impact on men. Some 88 percent of women say they have suffered from “currents of negativity emanating from other females,” says Kelly Valen, researcher and author of The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships, who also found that a third of the women she surveyed had sought therapy or become depressed as a result of the ominously named “intrafemale trouble.”
Anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, lower immunity and higher blood sugar are part of the laundry list of health issues linked to toxic friendships, but on top of that, “social diseases” like obesity are now understood to be “contagious” within a social circle too. Our risk of gaining weight spikes by 57 percent or higher when close friends’ weight goes up—much the same way we’re more likely to smoke and binge-drink if it’s the culture around us. The opposite is true as well. Our likelihood of exercising, eating properly, cultivating good sleeping habits and seeking early intervention for health issues increases significantly when friends do the same, and our ability to manage stress, stave off premature aging and increase resilience is bolstered by friendships.
Then there’s a concept called “Shine Theory,” which counters the dusty stereotype that says that women are h
FOR MANY REASONS, WE END UP YOKED TO THE PESSIMISTIC AND PERPETUALLY SAD, THE FLAKY AND SELFINVOLVED, FRIENDS IN CONSTANT NEED OF RESCUE.
so innately insecure and prone to jealousy that we can’t happily be friends with anyone we perceive to be more intelligent, successful or powerful than ourselves. Rather, Shine Theory, originated by New York Magazine columnist Ann Friedman, suggests that we can benefit from people who are better than us. She calls it the “associative property of awesomeness”—her idea that another woman’s confidence, ability and ambition have a way of rubbing off. “It’s just plain tough out there,” she writes, “[with] the economy and the dating scene and body-image pressures. I want the strongest, happiest, smartest women in my corner, pushing me to negotiate for more money, telling me to drop men who make me feel bad about myself and responding to my outfit selfies from a place of love and stylishness, not competition and body snarking.”
Maybe Shine Theory is just that—a theory—but take it to the extreme, just for argument’s sake, and it seems unlikely that if your go-to girls were Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland and Amal Clooney you’d spend tapas
A 75% larger night complaining about your dead-end job, serially un
back* provides faithful boyfriend up to and 10 hours lack of abs. Surely Mobama and Co. would have of no protection, time for your pity talk and you’d rise up.
Beyond so theory you and can so much science, beyond statistics and ideas of sleep “intrafemale through trouble,” most of us would say from experience the night. that the true, felt benefit of friendship is the emotional ballast women provide for one another. As marriage rates fall to record lows—a quarter of millennials, vs. Always Ultra Thin Regular with wings
it’s estimated, will never get married—friendships that func© Procter & Gamble, 2018 tion as a proxy are becoming more and more important.
The number of friends we take into adulthood won’t be the number we move on with. The friendships that form us in our 20s aren’t always the ones we’ll find fulfilling later on. But somehow just knowing this makes it possible to embrace the inevitable transition from the many to the few, make more mindful choices about who the few should be and eventually, maybe, be okay with the fact that never again will we have the numbers necessary to thoroughly destroy a front yard. n
THE TRUE, FELT BENEFIT OF FRIENDSHIP IS THE EMOTIONAL BALLAST WOMEN PROVIDE FOR ONE ANOTHER.