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How Many Friends Do You Really Need For A Happy, Healthy Life?

Interestingly, the number of close friendships Americans have has declined.

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Monica Garwood
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Just how wide is your friend circle? Is it all-encompassing? Consider my friend Marci, who lives in the same town she has been in since high school and college and remains close to the widest circle of friends of anyone I know. She has friends from high school and college, as well as married and single friends from every job, neighborhood and business she has frequented over the past few decades. Marci is the type of person who rarely meets anyone she doesn’t turn into a friend.

Then there’s my friend KG in Philly. After 20 years of trying to create adult friendships, she is moving in the name of widening her friend circle. She says everyone in her town already has their friend circle and that they prefer other locals, making it difficult for her to infiltrate ongoing friendships. She finally is giving up and heading to what she hopes are friendlier pastures in another city. Or take my friend Kelly, who tries on friends like shoes. She recently golfed with someone she met in her community to try on their friendship for size. When I asked how it went, she said they didn’t have much in common or much to talk about. Turned out that the “friend” didn’t fit. 

A 2021 Harvard report found that 61 percent of young adults feel seriously lonely. And that loneliness leads to depression and early mortality, among other health problems. One meta-analysis even said that loneliness was akin to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Research shows a circle of five or six close friends makes for the happiest, healthiest living — though what if you come in at 40 like Marci, or just a few like KG?

Is friendship on the decline?

Interestingly, friendship may be on the decline, which is no surprise due to recent pandemic lockdowns and the self-isolation many experienced. Friendships need to be nurtured and kept up with, after all, and it’s hard to do that when you’re hunkering down at home. Zoom can help only so much.

“As we have learned even more during the pandemic, friends are critically important for our mental and emotional well-being. And more so for those who live alone or do not have a partner they can count on,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of How to Meet Someone (Not Online).

A 2021 American Perspectives Survey found that the number of close friendships Americans have has declined over the past few decades. In 1990, 33 percent of those surveyed said they had 10 close friends. In 2021 that number was three or fewer.

What researchers do think is that the friendships you make time for should be ones you’re not ambivalent about. The critical, the unreliable, the Debbie Downers, the energy vampires and the one-upping friends you have — anyone whom you don’t enjoy spending precious time with — should all get the boot in favor of people you want to befriend.

How many friends is enough?

“There's no easy answer to this question, as it varies depending on each individual’s personality and needs,” says Justin Gasparovic, founder of The Enemy Of Average, a blog that publishes practical lifestyle advice. “Experts generally recommend that people have a mix of different types of friends in their social circle. This might include close friends, acquaintances and even casual acquaintances. That way, you always have someone to talk to when you need it — whether it’s for support, advice or simply a shoulder to cry on,” he says.

One 2016 study found that middle-aged women who have six or more friends enjoy improved health.

But whether you skew toward extrovert or introvert or somewhere in the middle, your friend needs may vary. Many people are happy with a partner and one close friend, others have a wider expectation where several of the friends they regularly associate with all provide varying levels of emotional connection.

You might have the friend you tell your troubles to, the friend you share home-life activities or events like a book club or dinners out with, or the friend with whom you go on girlfriend retreats or vacations. There are work friends or neighbors with whom you’ve found commonalities and consider your friends, and friends who go way back to college, high school or even elementary school with whom you still keep in touch.

“The main difference in the different types of categories above is about what level of closeness and intimacy (sharing information) you have with a person. Your best friend from college may know more about you than anyone else,” says O’Neill.

At the other extreme are the many “friends” in your circle who are more casual acquaintances. You enjoy spending time with them and like them, but they may not go as deep. Friendships are always evolving. They change over time — some getting deeper, others falling away, new ones beginning, and lifetime friends ebbing and flowing depending on your life stage.

“You absolutely do not need a friend in all the categories above,” says O’Neill. Some people will want that, others won’t. It’s a matter of your personality and what works for you in your life. 

Your friend number doesn’t really matter     

“I do not believe there is any magic number of how many close friends (who come to know you intimately) you should have. In my therapy work over many years I’ve come to think that two or three is the most we can ‘do well,’ ” says O’Neill. The best friendships occur when you’re respected, when there is an easy give and take, and when the friendship isn’t “work.” When you know you can count on someone or are on the same page — meaning you never feel forced into some behavior that just isn’t you — you know you have a great friend.

If you feel the need to make more friends, which can be difficult when you’re older, look for people of varying ages; some of the best friendships occur between people in different life stages. You may have a 20-something hairstylist to befriend or an 85-year-old neighbor who would make a great friend. Or try rekindling a friendship that has previously fizzled. It may be easier than starting from scratch.

If you’d like to increase your circle, take the initiative, reach out and ask potential friends to get together, go out or do something you have in common. Friendships take time and nurturing but can make life happy and healthy.