Top expert shows you how to revive social life after a year without it

See FIVE friends every week – or lose them! A top expert shows you how to revive your social life after a year without it

  • Professor Robin Dunbar said there is nothing more important in life than friends
  • Study found rarely meeting friends was worse for you than not eating fruit or veg
  • Said need to contact 5 closest friends at least once a week to keep it functioning 

By anybody’s standards, it’s been a hard year. But as we finally emerge blinking into lovely spring sunshine, it feels as though life is about to return to something like normal.

And precisely because of this, there are, as Monty Don would have it, a few jobs to attend to in the garden. Only, I mean our social garden. For nothing is more important in life than our friendships, and they have been in serious want of tending over the past year.

One of the surprises of the past decade has been the deluge of medical studies showing that the single most important factor influencing your psychological health and wellbeing, your physical health and wellbeing, even how long you will live, is the number and quality of close friendships you have.

It has a far bigger effect than any of the things your friendly neighbourhood GP worries about on your behalf. One Japanese study found that rarely meeting friends was worse for you than not eating any fruit or veg at all!

Now, you might infer from this that having an infinite number of friends would be ideal — you would live forever! Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

That’s partly because our brains aren’t big enough to manage more than about 150 friends and family, a figure now known within scientific circles as Dunbar’s Number, after work I did in the 1990s showed a link between the size of a primate’s brain and their average social group size.

Professor Robin Dunbar said that there is nothing more important in life than our friendships, which have ‘been in serious want of tending over the past year’ (stock image)

But it is also partly because time, as the White Rabbit always observes, is of the essence.

It’s the quality, and not just the quantity, of friendships that matters. Because the social time we have is limited, we distribute what time we have — around two hours a day — so as to ensure that the friendships that really matter to us work well.

Friends are only as good as the time you invest in them, so the ones that really matter need most attention.

Typically, we devote around 40 per cent of our available time to just five people, and another 20 per cent to the ten next most important. So two-thirds of our social effort goes to just 15 people, usually a mix of close family and friends.

Of these, it is the inner core of five special friends and family — the ‘shoulders to cry on’ friends — that are the ones that really matter. They are the ones that affect your health and wellbeing most.

In one study that my collaborators in Denmark and I published recently, we looked at the future risk of dementia in more than 38,000 people aged over 50 in 13 European countries. We found that having five close friends minimised the risk of dementia.

Have fewer or more than that, and the risk of dementia increased. It’s a reminder that what’s important about friends is that you need to invest in them — but at the same time, spread your time too thinly and you lose all the benefits you might have got.

The Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford said that we dedicate around 40 per cent of our available time to just five people, who we need to contact at least once a week to keep the friendship functioning (stock image) 

You need to contact those five closest friends at least once a week to keep the friendship functioning. Drop below that level, and the friendship will slowly but surely fade away. After two or three years of not seeing someone they will rank among your acquaintances rather than your friends. In the first lockdown, we all became enthusiastic social Zoomers. But the initial enthusiasm for Zoom get-togethers, Zoom coffee-and-cake, Zoom drinks and Zoom dinners soon began to pall. Now and again is fine, but every week? Somehow, these artificial environments just seemed less satisfying than meeting face-to-face. There are several reasons for this.

One is that our conversations are strictly limited to a maximum of four people. Add a fifth person, and it will be two conversations in a matter of minutes. We just cannot handle more than two or three minds in addition to our own at the same time.

The result is that online meetings quickly get dominated by a few socially forceful extraverts, and the rest retire to the sidelines to become onlookers.

In a real-life social group, conversations would be constantly changing. You could tap someone on the shoulder and say ‘come over here a moment, I want to have a private word.’

Or, if one conversation became boring, you could switch to another. Even round the dinner table we do that. But not on Zoom.

There is something else about everyday interactions that we often overlook. Touch. We do a great deal more of it than we realise — a pat on the shoulder, a stroke of an arm, a hug, even the occasional ‘high-five’.

These casual touches cement our friendships in a visceral way, creating a sense of physical warmth, bonhomie and ‘all’s well with the world’. It is this physical sense of friendship that most of us have missed during lockdown.

So, now that unlock looms, how should we go about renewing our friendships? Will they still be the same?

Probably the most important thing is not to worry about family, unless they are very, very close. In general, family relationships will look after themselves – not least because family are embedded in a network of interconnections who all work to keep each other up to date. It’s what we call the ‘kinship premium’.

Even a few months of absence can cause friendships to drift apart, the Professor said, and added that you need to worry about the five closest ones the most (stock image) 

The most important place to start is with friends. Even a few months absence can cause friendships to drift apart. And the friendships you need to worry most about are those five closest ones, the friends you rely on most.

Friends will only race to pick you up when your world falls apart if you have been actively maintaining the friendship.

Less close friends can wait. There’s a risk you may lose some, but then friends in the outer layers of your social world turn over at the best of times. One of our studies suggested that as many as a third of friendships change place each year. These are what I call ‘schoolgate friends’.

You met waiting for the children to come out of school. The children wanted to play together or have a sleepover. One thing led to another and the two families spend weekends, even holidays, together. Then the children go their own ways and stop seeing each other as new friendships are made elsewhere. And suddenly the parents stop spending so much time together.

Many of our more casual friendships are friendships of convenience and last only as long as they benefit us. Valued at the time, but having served their purpose you can afford to let them slide.

But what should you do now to reinforce those important friendships? In fact, the best thing is a meal or just a drink together. For the best effects, the essential ingredients, aside from some good food, are reminiscences, a lot of laughter, and a little alcohol. All of these turn out to trigger the mechanisms in the brain that create the sense of warmth and trust that underpins close friendships.

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. His latest book, Friends: Understanding The Power of Our Most Important Relationships (£20, Little Brown) is out now.

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