Who’s your best friend? This question appears simple and straightforward on the surface, but science tells a more complex story. Research indicates that while you may be able to rattle of a list of your friends with ease, only 53% of those people would include you on their own list.
Researchers examined relationship surveys from multiple experiments and found that while a majority of friendships are expected to be reciprocal, the truth is only about half of them actually are. Why do we believe that people are our friends when they aren’t? One possibility is that we subconsciously do know we value them more than they value us, but we suppress the knowledge because being one-half of a non-reciprocal friendship can damage our self-image.
Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar proposed that any individual can maintain stable relationships with no more than 150 people, and this theory is often referenced as ‘Dunbar’s Number.’ Dunbar believes we have different levels of friendships: a couple of best friends, maybe ten we feel a ‘great affinity’ toward, and many other types of people who we get along with, but have not formed deep, sustainable bonds with.
Malcolm Gladwell discusses Dunbar’s Number at length in his book The Tipping Point. Gladwell rehashes the story of the leaders of W.L. Gore and Associates who discovered that when over 150 employees worked together in a building, social issues frequently arose. The company eventually set a 150-employee limit per building.
When it comes to friendships, the quality of the friendships truly does outweigh the quantity. Maintaining many superficial relationships can lead to insecurity and feeling lonelier than simply being alone. Those undesirable feelings can become destructive if not checked. Developing deeper, more meaningful connections can decrease this risk. Rather than keeping 10 or 20 friends around with whom you share relationships that are just so-so, the key is to find a handful or less of truly great friends who provide you with a feeling of comfort and security.
If you’re feeling a bit unnerved after learning this — I was! — don’t fear. There are plenty of ways to ensure that you nurture your existing friendships to keep them as strong as possible:
1. Communicate Honestly
No surprise here: when you exhibit genuine behavior, you foster genuine relationships. When issues arise in a friendship, communicate with tact but also sincerity. Avoid saying things about friends that you aren’t saying to them, and express how you feel directly instead of being cryptic.
2. Show Up
When you tell a friend you’re going to be there for them, mean it. If they need support or a helping hand, offer it. Make sure they know that should a trying time arise, they have you in their corner.
3. Be Present
One of the most frustrating moments in some of my friendships has been showing up to hang with someone who stays on their phone the entire time. It feels like they don’t want to be there, which makes me not want to be around them. When you make plans with someone, put down the device and really listen to what they say.
4. Exhibit Empathy
When someone you know vents or complains to you, show that you’re truly engaged. Display signs of active listening, offer them advice, and try to really put yourself in their situation when they divulge a problem to you.
5. Laugh Together
Yes, it’s crucial to be a good friend when the going gets rough, but remember to keep having exciting experiences that you can look back on later. Be someone who people can depend on but also feel good being around.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.