There is no single answer of course but the increased isolation during the pandemic has led to considerable reflection on the effects of solitude on people who have been cut off from socializing with family, friends, and co-workers. This has clearly had more of an effect on some than others and caused them to think about who are the people they really miss and want to reconnect with as soon as possible and whom they may decide to slowly ease away from.
Melissa Kirsch described her apprehension about meeting a friend after a long separation, and that caused her to explore the question of how many friends a person needs to stave off feelings of loneliness.
Perhaps it’s the clarity that comes from enduring a difficult period, but I’ve noticed, in myself and others, a diminishing tolerance for uncomfortable or unfulfilling social interactions. Seeing my old friend was thrilling. It felt nutrient-dense, almost like our connection was refueling my personality. But I’ve also experienced the opposite: a quick drink with an acquaintance that feels unduly exhausting.
My colleague Catherine Pearson spoke to experts to determine how many friends a person needs in order to stave off loneliness. (A 2010 meta-analysis found that loneliness is “as harmful to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”) While no consensus emerged on an optimal number, Catherine did find that more isn’t always better: “Spending time with friends you feel ambivalent about — because they’re unreliable, critical, competitive or any of the many reasons people get under our skin — can be bad for your health.”
Our time and attention are valuable and finite, and we’re in control of what we do with them. We forget this sometimes. We reflexively say yes to invitations because we happen to be free. We go to events out of a vague sense of obligation. We say, “Let’s meet for drinks,” because it’s socially easier than just saying, “Take care.”
One factor to bear in mind is how we define a friend. We all have a huge range of relationships ranging from the superficial to the deep. I think of friends as people whom one can always depend upon, whom one trusts and can share confidences with, can call upon for help if one needs it and know that they will rally round, and that you will reciprocate for them. The number of people who qualify as friends in that deep sense could be a few as can be counted on. one hand and still be sufficient.
I know that that is true in my case. Sri Lanka is a very sociable place, when people are not engaged in civil wars based on religion and ethnicity or fighting in the streets over political divisions. When one meets people for the first time, if the interaction is going well, you will almost always have one of them invite the other to their home for a meal. This is not the perfunctory “We must get together sometime” exchange that one often has in the US in which both parties know that it is just a formality, a means of ending a conversation, and a future invitation will not be forthcoming. In Sri Lanka, dates and availability will be immediately discussed. When I go back to visit Sri Lanka, as soon as words gets around that I am back, friends and relatives will invite me for a meal and quite often the people one meets on such occasions will also invite me to their home. Before I know it, every day of my stay will be booked for both lunch and dinner engagements. And once you are fully booked, people will ask you to drop by for tea or a snack. This is a very nice feature of the society but can be overwhelming. While I enjoy catching up with old friends, by the end of my holiday I am usually exhausted since I am an introvert who prefers to interact with others in small doses.
Because of this highly sociable nature, one tends as a young person to acquire many, many relationships that are more than just acquaintances but less than friends. Even I, not someone who is particularly gregarious, had a huge number of such acquaintances and over time, some of them became lifelong friends.
There is another important factor and that is age. As one gets older, one’s circle of friends tend to diminish because one gets set in one’s ways and not engage in as many new experiences where one encounters new people. So one sticks with the people one knows and that number will decrease as people move on. But the need to have many friends also tends to decrease. Studies have found that as people get older, they tend to stop making new friends and prefer spend more time with old ones. This is because making a new friend requires some effort and since one is aware of the fact that one’s life is not going to last much longer, this effort may not seem worth it. While maintaining contact with old friends is easier, this can have the downside that when people get very old, their friends will start dying off, leaving them feeling alone.
I like to think that I could live a solitary life quite comfortably because I have spent extended periods of time without little or no contact with others, the pandemic period being a good example, and it has not bothered me. But that is not a real test of the ability to live a solitary life because I am always aware that I have a few very good friends that I can contact at any time and engage with them. Even if we have not spoken for some time, when we do we just slip easily into the familiar groove, which is a good marker of a solid friendship.