When Facebook first came out, I was in high school (I’m a dinosaur, I know).
For the first year or so, I was secretly keeping an eye on my friend count and comparing it to others in my school. Every time I added someone new and looked at my friend count—ding! There was a rush of endorphins and a sense that I was increasing my social status, at least in my school. When my birthday came around, I was ecstatic at all of the people who were wishing me happy birthday on my timeline.
Eventually, this phase passed. But even when I started working, I noticed a similar pattern happening.
I’d go to industry networking events. Fill up my weekends with catch-ups and parties so that I would constantly be busy. And even though I’d like to pretend I didn’t, I’d keep one eye on my LinkedIn follower count just to see it tick up and up and up.
Even though I was out of high school, the world still felt like a popularity contest
Many of us think that when we reach college, we’re past the stage of wanting to be “popular.” But the truth is, we’re still seeking that popularity—we’re just doing it in different ways.
Network with more people = more job opportunities.
Increase your followers on social media = paid sponsorships and work with brands.
Build your personal brand = more influence in your workplace and industry.
It’s a never-ending cycle of trying to be liked, finding and investing in new relationships, and stressing out if our circles aren’t big enough.
Coming out of the pandemic, many of us have doubled down on this mindset to make up for the years of feeling isolated from our loved ones.
But the truth is, having fewer friends isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, it’s actually an incredible thing.
With friends, it’s about quality, not quantity
Genuine relationships, be it with friends or colleagues, take work.
You have to make time to connect with each other and spend time together if you want to build a solid friendship—the kind that Joey and Chandler had on “Friends.” You have to be there when things are tough, be honest with one another, and go through shared experiences to form the kinds of bonds that are truly unbreakable.
This is where having too many friends makes it tough.
The more friends you have, the more you spread yourself thin. It’s hard to focus on any one relationship because you’re constantly trying to catch up with everyone, spend time with everyone, and listen to everyone.
Unless being a friend is your full-time job, it’s tough to juggle so many relationships and all of your other duties—whether work, study, or hobbies.
On the flip side, if you have fewer close friends, it’s easier to invest in the friendships and watch them grow over time.
This isn’t to say don’t go out and make new friends. Meeting and befriending people can be a good thing, particularly in your 20s. Research shows that having more friends in your formative years can lead to better friendships in your 30s. However, “more” means having 10 friends—not having hundreds and hundreds of people in your roster. This is more than enough to get all of the positive impacts of friendship, such as increased life satisfaction and less stress.
So how many friends do you actually need?
Believe it or not, we humans have a limit on the number of deep friendships we can keep up with.
A study from the ‘90s claimed that people could handle up to 150 meaningful relationships, including those with friends and family. However, the number of truly close friendships that people have usually sits at around five.
Why is it so low, despite the fact that we have a lot of meaningful relationships in our lives?
It all boils down to the amount of time and effort required to get a friendship to that level—and to maintain it.
While you can’t exactly quantify friendship in hours or days, researchers have tried. And they’ve found that it takes:
Less than ten hours to become acquaintances
30 hours before casual friendships emerge
50 hours to form friendships
140 hours to form good friendships
300+ hours to become best friends
What’s more, once you reach good or best friend status, it doesn’t stop. We have to consistently put effort into the relationship to keep it at that level, showing up for our friends and supporting them throughout this crazy journey called life.
When you realize this, it becomes pretty obvious that it takes a lot to cultivate this level of friendship. And because of the sheer time and energy involved, it’s important to reserve this for the people you want in your life—not just anyone who wants your time.
Quality friendships show that you are gaining in maturity. The healthiest people manage to hold on to the friendships that nourish them, whilst forming new connections at the same time. New connections that are more in line with their adult personality and goals in life.
Whether you have a big roster of friends and you’re trying to be more intentional, or you’re trying to give more to the friends you already have, there are a few steps you can take to ensure you’re focusing your time and energy on the right people.
1. Understand the relationships you want to invest in
I’m going to come out and say it straight off the bat: Some friendships just aren’t worth it. In fact, the majority of your friendships probably aren’t. The truth is, finding someone who you truly vibe with is rare—and so is finding someone who’s equally invested in your relationship.
Think long and hard about who you want to invest your time in. Which friendships do you value, and which ones bring the most value to your life? Focus on growing these, and you’ll soon see the payoff from your efforts.
2. Ditch the bad vibes
On that note: this is also a good time to take stock of your existing friends to evaluate whether they’re worth keeping around. If you’ve got a friend who looks like one of these, it’s probably not worth sinking in more time and effort:
The non-committal friend. Always a struggle to pin down, and only available for an hour when you do catch up.
The narcissist. Always seems to be interested in their own lives and not yours.
The toxic friend. Makes you feel bad about yourself, or constantly drains your energy.
The fair weather friend. There for the good times, but when sh*t hits the fan, they’re nowhere to be found.
The legacy friend. A friend from school, work, or somewhere else. When you meet, you can only talk about who you know.
3. Build a solid routine
Friendships form over shared experiences and time spent together. Once you’ve set up the foundation of your relationship, maintain it by finding regular opportunities to catch up and keep in touch.
This might mean having a longstanding coffee date every Saturday morning or a pilates class every month. These little opportunities give you moments to reconnect and stay involved in each other’s lives as they change and evolve.
Another thing to keep in mind? Friendships require different things from us at different times.
If you have a friend going through a breakup, you’ll likely need to invest a little bit more in that relationship. Likewise, if you have a friend who’s moving overseas, you may need to revisit how you connect with them—or adjust your expectations for the friendship moving forward.
4. Remember: you can have different friends for different moments
For the longest time, I kept expecting all my friends to tick all the boxes: great at listening and giving advice, awesome to hang out with, and super supportive in every single situation. Over time, however, my perspective evolved.
I realized that different friends meet different needs.
I have friends that are pretty unhelpful when it comes to relationships but really great when it comes to career advice and vice versa. When I started leaning into that, I found that I was much happier for it—and my relationships with my friends grew stronger.
When focusing on fostering your friendships, don’t try to force anyone to be someone they’re not. As long as your needs are met, it’s okay for some friends to cover one aspect of your life and others to cover other bases.
5. Be deliberate when making new friends
At some point or another, you’ll likely want to form new social connections. Maybe one of your friends has moved away and you’re feeling lonely, or you just don’t feel like you’re getting everything you need from your existing friendship group.
The benefit of making new friends is that you can be a little bit more selective with who you want to spend time with (as opposed to friends in high school who can often end up being friends of circumstance). Focus on cultivating relationships that you think will enrich your life, not drain it—and make sure you’re laying solid foundations for friendship by consistently spending time together, particularly in the early parts of your relationship.
It’s as much give as it is take
Finally, remember that any friendship requires you to put in the work. You need to be willing to be vulnerable and honest with your friends, stick it out when things get tough, and put in more effort sometimes when they’re going through a tough time. If you stop trying in a friendship just because it’s hard or you’re busy, don’t be surprised if you drift apart.
However, if you do put in the effort, it’s more than worth it. Our best friends often know us better than we know ourselves and add so much color and vibrancy to our lives. When you focus on the friendships that add value to your life and that bring you joy, you’ll find your days are much fuller for it.