Do you need lots of friends to be happy? Why the optimum number is fewer than you think

As Oprah Winfrey reveals she only has three close friends, we ask if happiness in friendships is down to quality or quantity, and how that can change throughout our lives

In news that came as a surprise to her fans, former talk show host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey last week revealed she only has three close friends. Coming from a woman who has interviewed thousands of people throughout her career, rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous and influential people on the planet, and has the Obamas on speed dial, it's difficult to understand how Winfrey could have so few people she regards as close.

“I don’t have a lot of friends,” she revealed on the Making Space with Hoda Kotb podcast. “There’s Gayle [King], there’s Maria [Shriver], there’s Bob [Greene]. And that’s about it, you know? Gayle and Maria, I met around the same time; Gayle and I have been friends for 42 years.”

Winfrey, 67, isn’t the first celebrity to admit to being able to count their friends on one hand. Oscar-winning actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie admitted in an interview with CNN: “I don’t have a lot of friends I talk to.”

Victoria Beckham is another. “I don’t have a lot of friends, but I’m surrounded by people I genuinely like to be with,” the Spice Girl-turned-designer told Elle. “I’m very close to my sister and a friend I went to school with. Then maybe three or four others. I think a true friend understands that you can’t see them as much as you might want because they’re busy as well.”

While three close friends might sound small, studies have shown it’s actually about the optimum number for happiness and personal satisfaction in relationships.

“An evolutionary psychologist called Dr Robin Dunbar at Oxford University worked out the maximum number of friends we, as human beings, can have,” says Eleonore Brocq, clinical psychologist at Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic. “He concluded that our minds can deal with roughly 150 friendships. But typically, we have a core group of five very close friends – something Dr Dunbar refers to as our ‘support clique’. They are our real, deep, meaningful connections.”

Another study, Friendships, Subjective Age and Life Satisfaction of Women in Midlife by Susan Degges-White, found that people with three to five close friends report the highest levels of life satisfaction.

“To summarise, the ideal number is three to five,” says Brocq, “but of course it’s possible to have fewer or more and be living your best life.”

Quality over quantity

Whether on social media or across advertising platforms, a "more is best" approach to friendships has emerged over time as the message pushed to the fore. Fitting in with societal optics centred on popularity and influence, quantity is instantly visual in a way quality is not. Besides, the more people, the more fun, right?

“Quality is more important than quantity,” says Brocq. “You might have an impressive Instagram following and a Facebook feed full of acquaintances, but research has found that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to friendships and their impact on our well-being.

“Shifting your focus from quantity to quality can be a life-changer if you let it. Focusing on quantity rather than quality will encourage nothing except developing the wrong priorities in life. You focus on having more friends, instead of meaningful friends who have your back through ups and downs.”

Friendship stages through the ages

When it comes to the size of friendship groups, for most people, the ones they have in their teens and twenties are far bigger than those they have in their thirties, forties and beyond.

“Our requirements for friendships change over time, depending on where we are in life,” says Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. “At certain times, having many friends is what we need. While at a different stage, a two or three-strong supportive friendship group may significantly outweigh 10 or more acquaintances.

“In order to nurture a true friendship, significant time and commitment is needed, as is the desire to know that a friend will always be there for you when needed,” she says. “The quality of a relationship is what counts most.”

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“Our requirements for friendships change over time, depending on where we are in life."
Tanya Dharamshi, psychologist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

Friendships that last tend to be those in which there is give and take as well as a shared understanding on both sides that life will change and the friendship is fluid enough to withstand that.

“As important as friendships are, they are a voluntary relationship. Both friends choosing each other [and] choosing to enter or exit the relationship at a certain time and shape of their lives. They only continue as long as they are enjoying the voluntary process,” says Mirna Iwaza, clinical hypnotherapist and relationship coach at Miracles. “Friendships have no formal or strict structure. This leaves the relationship subject to life’s ups and downs in a way that the more structured relationships, such as marriage, parenthood or siblinghood are not.”

When it comes to forming friendships, it's also important to consider not only where you're at in your life mentally and emotionally, but also physically. Just as youthful relationships are formed through school, university and clubs, friendships as you grow older are often borne out of proximity and necessity.

"Friends are really salient in our adolescence and emerging adulthood, whereas partners, parents and children take priority as we get older," says Dr Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and managing director at Thrive Wellbeing Centre. "Our time becomes more limited as we age, and since our friendships lack a formal structure and consistent expectations we often emphasise other key relationships and responsibilities. We often see that people form friendships with co-workers and their children’s friend’s parents. These types of friendships are based on some common ground and also allow us to be efficient in our time."

The benefits of quality relationships

“An exploratory study done by Ambers and Fowers identifies the characteristics of our friendships based on affinity, utility, pleasure and virtue,” says Dharamshi. “As we move through life, we place value on various characteristics of these relationships.”

The characteristics that constitute a good friendship are subjective. Although we are most likely to cite attributes such as kindness, loyalty and generosity in what we look for in friends, the minutiae of that relationship is personal to those in it.

“Surround yourself with someone who is as happy for your happiness as you are for your happiness,” Winfrey has said of the attributes she looks for. “You need friends that are happy in their own lives so that they can actually be authentically happy for you.”

While looking to others for the benefits they bring to a friendship, it is also important to look at yourself, keeping in mind the changes you personally go through that will affect your friendships.

“An important player is personal growth,” says Iwaza. “Not only do your circumstances change, but those circumstances may also induce in you paradigm shifts and growth in directions other than the ones you were in when the friendship started.”

Brocq says: “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.”

Does having more friends make you happier?

In a word – no. When it comes to friendships, experts universally agree that quality trumps quantity every time. Rather than looking at numbers, we should look at the attributes of others, as well as checking in with what you’re getting from the relationship.

“Healthy, mutual friendships are crucial for our mental health,” says Dharamshi. “They prevent loneliness, allow us to share our worries, and help foster respect and trust. They can also help increase our overall sense of belonging and purpose.”

Iwaza says: “It is the quality of the connection that counts. A friendship can create a space where you can be yourself and be vulnerable; a space where you can bring your wounds to share your healing along your journey; a chance to love yourself, and the other, and to mature in the process. This safe place that friendship provides is personal and unique, and cannot possibly be shared by a big number of acquaintances.”

It's a sentiment with which Rasmi agrees. "It is hard to find these elements in superficial acquaintances," she says. "Yes, we may be able to have fun and enjoy one another, but it’s the close friends who are more likely to be there for us when we need them."

Updated: October 17th 2021, 11:31 AM