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The science of friendship

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”
- John Donne 

Written in 1623, Donne’s oft-quoted words may have emanated from a very different time to ours, but the nature of human connections has preoccupied thinkers since ancient times. Greek philosopher Plato attempted to define the different types of love, and the very phrase we use to define friendship – “platonic” – derives from his ideas.

Since human beings painted on cave walls, humanity has expressed a drive to communicate with one another – to connect. Donne’s words may have been written in a time when several days by letter was a speedy way to communicate, but they reflect a timeless preoccupation with the nature of human relationships.

Instant connection

Today, in our world of instant communication, few would dispute the importance of connection. No longer must letters be sent by horse-mounted messenger or spend months in transit aboard a sailing ship. Even in a world revolutionised by the telegraph and then telephone, there is no need to maintain friendships in a strategy of letter writing and carefully timed calls to overcome time differences.

Inarguably, it is easier than ever before to make and maintain friendships. We are spoiled for choice in ways to share photographs, news and conversation. However, the question still haunts us – what is friendship and who are our friends? Moreover, today we are forced to ask ‘are our virtually maintained friendships real or does distance remove us from one another’?

Friends or followers?

Repeated studies of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter conclude that regardless of how many friends or followers one can lay claim to, the average human being can only maintain around 150 meaningful relationships at one time. 

Anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar, of the University of Oxford, carried out the initial seminal studies of Facebook friendships and, even after revisiting the topic more recently, concluded that the 150 figure stands – known as Dunbar’s number.

An informal study, conducted by researchers in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews a few years ago, asked 200 first-year students to list all their friends and family – the one caveat being that they could only include people they chose to spend time with at least once a year. This rule intended to exclude transient and forced relationships to reflect Dunbar’s belief that some element of face-to-face interaction is crucial. The results chimed with Dunbar’s number, with the average being 152.

Studies consistently suggest that we, on average, have around five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. But in a world of social media with friends, followers and likes numbering in their hundreds, even thousands, the meaning of the term “friend” has become wider and yet vaguer than it has ever been. We need commit little time to actually being in the presence of our friends and family when a quick photograph posted online can reach so many with so little effort.

Our friends define us

However, the value of friendship is broader than who we choose to spend our leisure time with: who we count as friends contributes to our sense of self, of who we are. Work on shared social identity argues that who we are friends with can define who we are, that shared social identity creates a bond between people, which can be beneficial to our sense of wellbeing. Social identity theory suggests that rather than identifying ourselves by our differences from others, we in fact identify ourselves by which group we belong to.

We each have various identities: from the family we belong to; to the country we are from; our football team; or even the university we attended.

Stronger than blood

A 2006 study on students at university in Melbourne concluded that increasing their sense of connectedness contributed to the students’ increased well-being. In other words, encouraging people to feel they are part of a shared community, that they belong to a group, can make them happier.

Indeed, being part of this shared community may even supersede family as we get older. Research conducted at Michigan State University found that friendships become increasingly important and are a source of happiness which overtakes that generated by family connections as we age.

William Chopik’s study of nearly 280,000 people from nearly 100 countries found that friendships predict day-to-day happiness, and even longer life expectancy, more than family. 

Running the gauntlet together

Research published in Higher Education found that social support had no effect on study attainment, but personal networks did have a notable effect. Being part of a personal social network reduced a student’s risk of failing to graduate, potentially due to peer pressure and social control but also because they may provide a source of exemplary behaviour and demonstrate similar goals.

The research by Eggens, van der Werf and Bosker concluded that personal networks may also function as a safety net to support students through the pressure of university studies. Ultimately, although they were able to establish a link, they could not say with 100 per cent certainty why this was the case.

Humanity may have been preoccupied by the idea of friendship for thousands of years, but still questions remain.

To conclude with the remainder of Donne’s verse, what he knew for certain, as we and Plato also must acknowledge, is that we are stronger together: 

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.