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Friendship in a lonely world

What does research say about friendship?

I get alot of questions about friendship in my psychotherapy practice. People ask me why they don't fit in to the larger social groups in their communities. They say they often feel lonely and hurt. I empathize with their feelings. And then validate that their feelings are in line with what Cigna researchers found in 2018 - 2019, out of 10,000 Americans surveyed, 1 in 3 said they were lonely.

So, what can be done about loneliness? Research shows that loneliness is epidemic in American society. What does the research show us about friendship?

Dunbar's Number

Friendship has been studied for decades. Robin Dunbar is an Advanced Researcher at Oxford University and is one of the world's most cited experts in human friendship. He first performed his anthropological research in the 1980's on primate groups, when he studied how primates form relationships in their social circles. He expanded his observations to include human relationships. Over the decades, Dunbar has created a broad base of quantitative data informed by qualitative information gleaned by interviewing the research subjects about their relationships.

Over the years, Dunbar found that humans have relationships that are, on average, limited to 150 personal relationships, but few intimate relationships. His research with primates also found this to be true. Of course, this average number varies by individual. Some individuals are naturally more extroverted than others and some more introverted.

The Circular Structure of Human Social Relationships

The structure of these social relationships is like a circle. The closest circle is composed of 1 -2 intimate partner and a BFF. Having a BFF as well as an intimate partner in the first circle was a more consistent pattern for women than men. The next circle is composed of 5 good friends. These are people we feel close to and are in contact with at least once a week. The next circle is composed of 15 people, who are monthly contacts. The layer is of 50 people..those we see maybe very 6 months. The outer circle of 150 are people we contact once a year, like maybe for weddings, etc. Keep in mind that the larger circles are inclusive of the inner circles, meaning, the inner 5 are actually part of the next 15, and so on.

What does this mean to lonely people?

Further, adding to Dunbar's data, researchers from all over the planet have studied patterns of contact using data from literally trillions...yes trillions! of phone calls and texting records and patterns of contacts in various real life communities, such as camps, churches, and residential communities. With these mountains of data, researchers analyzed and quantified who people contacted with and how many times a day/week/month/ etc. Take a look at the chart below. The same numbers that Dunbar came up with.

What this means is that most people have a very small circle of supportive friends. This can help you reframe your preconceived notions of how "popular" other people are. Most people do not have alot of friends.

People who go out alot are socially skillful and have a carefully cultivated, wider circle of less close friends to draw upon for social outings. This is different than close friendships.

The other interesting finding that Dunbar and his friendship researchers found is that when a close contact moves away, in time another person is slotted into that close contact spot.

This means that humans want close contacts and are resilient in relationships. We are always reworking our close friendships and expanding our outer circles according to situations and circumstances.

It's a matter of developing a plan, and taking time to cultivate friends using consistent contact in a framework of shared activities and interests.


  • Denworth, L. (2020). Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Dunbar, R. (2021). Friendship-ology. New Scientist, 249(3324), 36–40.

  • Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Dew, M. A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., & Primack, B. A. (2018). Social Media Use and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: A Cluster Analysis. American journal of health behavior, 42(2), 116–128.

  • Vannuccia, A., Flannery, K. M., McCauley-Ohannessianac, C. (2016) Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults. Journal of Affective Disorders. 1 January 2017, Vol(7), pp. 163-166


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