He’s adored by women, envied by men and boasts a celebrity lifestyle others can only dream of.
Yet as David Beckham confesses he can count his true friends on less than one hand – and is happy that way – the question poses itself: how many pals do we actually need?
This week, the footballer revealed in an interview with US Men’s Health: “I’ve got three really good friends. It’s all you need. I’d rather have three really good friends than 20 good friends.”
It comes just months after fellow global heartthrob Justin Timberlake confessed his best friend was a childhood school chum, adding: “I grew up in a small town and I could count my friends on one hand and I still live that way.”
So when most of us might boast we have mates into the triple figures on Facebook, an army more on Linkedin and still others swilling about on Twitter, what’s the truth about our real friendships and do we really need many to be content in life?
According to Professor Robin Dunbar, head of Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need, the maximum number of people with whom we can realistically hold personal relationships is 150 – a limit set “by the size of our brains”.
But these will include relatives and casual acquaintances – plus people on your Christmas card list that you don’t speak to from year to year. As for intimate friends, most of us will boast only five – a number backed by an old Portugese proverb: “You only have five true friends, and the rest is landscape.”
Says Prof Dunbar: “Although there has been a fashion for competitively adding ‘friends’ to one’s social network internet site… most exchanges are directed at the small inner core.
“This seems to be because, ultimately, relationships survive only if you reinforce them by occasional face-to-face contacts.”
A recent study from America’s Cornell University, meanwhile, is more conservative still: it claims that, these days, most of us have just two dearest confidants.
Its author, Matthew Brashears, says this is not a cause for alarm but simply a sign that we are careful about classifying which friendships are “suitable for important discussions”.
It doesn’t mean we are any less social, he insists – just that we reserve our deepest confidences for a very few closest chums.
Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, agrees that the term “friend” may cover a whole host of relationships, but good friends are rarer.
“Aristotle said friends must have eaten salt together and what he meant is there’s a sense that people have lived a significant part of their life together. They’ve sat down and shared meals and the ups and downs of life.
“You really have to have mulled over things with them to become really good friends and there’s only so many people you can do that with.”
Vernon adds that we are often too fixated with the number of friends we have: “Ask yourself about the quality of your friendships, not about the quantity.”
According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, friendship is a “distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other, for the other’s sake, and that involves some degree of intimacy”.
The reality is that most of us have successive ‘circles’ of friends – the inner core of people we can call on day or night, then friends we socialise fairly regularly with, then colleagues and casual pals, and on the outer fringes acquaintances and people we stay in only sporadic contact with.
Surveys show that our number of friendships peak at the age of 21 – typically with 13 ‘best’ friends, 17 ‘close’ friends and 70 acquaintances. Plus the average 22-year-old claims to have as many as 1,000 friends on social networking sites.
But as we get older we tend to become more selective about the people we let in to our inner circle: often friends slip by the wayside simply because lives diverge and the demands of work and family life mean less time to maintain all our relationships.
Some studies show that as men and women age they lose tolerance for friendships that “must” be maintained out of social responsibility – and those friendships that have not deepened into closer connections are often shed.
That doesn’t mean that friendship gets less important as we get older, however: research suggests that the less time people in their 60s, 70s and 80s spend engaged in social activity the faster their physical decline.
In fact, one study by Australian scientists found that having and maintaining a strong network of friends could help people over 70 to live longer.
The moral of the story? Don’t get hung up on totting up your Facebook friends – but spend time nurturing the handful or so of relationships with people you can really confide in. David Beckham may be right.
[Via The Family GP]