How many friends do you really need? Is there a perfect number everyone should aim for?

For years, friendship in America has been in decline, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. Three decades ago, three per cent of Americans told Gallup pollsters they had no close friends; in 2021, an online poll put it at 12 per cent.

There are health implications: Friendship can be an important factor in wellbeing, while loneliness and social isolation can be associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease and stroke.

There aren’t many studies that have tackled the question of how many friends people should aim for, but those that have been done indicate three to six close friends may be the sweet spot.

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If your goal is to mitigate the harm loneliness can have on your health, what matters most is having at least one important person in your life – whether that’s a partner, a parent, a friend or someone else.

“But if you want to have the most meaningful life, one where you feel bonded and connected to others, more friends are better,” said Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.

The British psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar contended that humans are cognitively able to maintain only about 150 connections at once.

That includes an inner circle of about five close friends, followed by larger concentric circles of more casual types of friends. Other estimates are in a similar ballpark.

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The psychologist and author Marisa Franco recommends starting with a question: Do I feel lonely?

“Loneliness is a sort of signal or alarm system,” she said. Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but this is a deeper question about whether you regularly feel isolated.

One survey suggested that roughly one in three Americans has experienced “serious loneliness” during the pandemic. But making friends in adulthood can be challenging. Dr Franco said it’s easier to start by rekindling old relationships that have fizzled.

The amount of time you spend with your friends matters, too. Dr Hall’s research suggests very close friendships tend to take around 200 hours to develop. He said finding three to six friends “isn’t a magic number” for everyone: “Your personality and the characteristics of your life are going to make a difference.”

By Catherine Pearson © 2022 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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