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How many friends do you really need?

Jane Murphy / 18 July 2016

We look at what the studies reveal about happiness and the number of friends you have in your life.

A group of friends

Everybody needs friends – or so you'd think. But one in ten people in the UK has no close friends, according to a recent survey by craft company Stampin' Up – and more than a third of us report spending less time with friends nowadays. 

But does it really matter how many friendships you have? Isn't it more important to be happy, healthy and fulfilled, regardless of whether you're surrounded by people you know or by yourself?

Let's look at the case for lots of friends first. Countless studies have demonstrated how strong friendships can boost health and wellbeing. An example? People with wider social networks have higher pain thresholds, say researchers at the University of Oxford. The link is thought to be down to the release of endorphins – pain-killing brain chemicals that are triggered when we're socialising with friends.

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Will your friends be there for you?

Friends also play a key role in helping us through the toughest times, of course. Socially isolated women with breast cancer are more likely to die from the illness because of the lack of care-giving and support from friends and family, according to a study at the University of California.

'The benefits of friendships become even more important as we grow older, when events such as bereavement, divorce and people moving away, can reduce our social circle,' says clinical psychologist Sukie Bilkhu at Priory's Wellbeing Centre in Southampton. 'Close friendships provide us with an increased sense of belonging and self-worth that is incredibly important for our mental health and wellbeing.'

But what actually constitutes a 'close friend'? Having a wide social network doesn't necessarily mean you can expect a line of people to show up offering their support when the chips are down. Take Facebook 'friends', for instance. The average person has around 150 'friends' on the social network, but each of us could only really count on around four of these connections to be there in a crisis, according to another recent Oxford study.

What to do when your friends let you down

What are your friendship needs?

Another factor to bear in mind is that we all have different friendship needs. 'The need for friends as we get older really varies according to each person's life experiences,' says Bilkhu. 'Some people value close-knit friends to help alleviate loneliness, while others feel happy and content in their own company. There are some who don't feel the need for any friendship "circles" as their immediate family fulfil this need. The key point is there is no "ideal" number of friends. What matters is the value a person places on friendships.'

Interestingly, intelligence may also play a part in defining our friendship needs, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Psychology. 

Researchers found that the more social interactions with close friends a person had, the greater their self-reported happiness tended to be. So no surprises there. However, this wasn't the case for super-smart people: the more frequently individuals with high IQs socialised with friends, the less satisfied with life they were.

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Should you make more friends?

'The key is to explore what's really important in your life,' Bilkhu advises. 'If having large friendship circles isn't something that fulfils your psychological, physiological and emotional needs, you can explore other avenues instead. This might mean refreshing or rejuvenating your relationship with your partner or family, or developing relationships in other ways such as through music, writing, art, nature, healthy living or spirituality.'

Indeed, having lots of friends doesn't necessarily make you happier or more fulfilled. It's worth remembering that friendships can also be a source of stress and conflict. Those old 'playground feelings' can still rear their heads on occasion: we've all felt let-down, ignored or insulted (however mildly) by friends from time to time.

So is it better to focus on a handful of close friendships? Or should we try to make new friends wherever we go? 'An alternative way to look at it is to be open to new possibilities of connecting with others,' says Bilkhu. 'As we grow older, we become stuck in our ways and can limit our potential for personal growth. So give yourself opportunities to "connect" wherever you are. And if friendships are high on your list of priorities, remain open to forging new ones. But remember, there are plenty of other ways to be happy and content.'

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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