The effects that friendships have on psychological and physical health have been well documented across a broad body of research. Benefits of having friends include (among others):
- Lower stress
- Lower depression
- Lower anxiety
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower mortality rates
- Improved behavioral pathways (such as getting more sleep)
- Sharper mind
A meta-analysis done of 148 mortality studies even found that a lack of social relationships is comparable to well know health risks such as cigarette smoking and obesity, where weak social ties could be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having more than 6 alcoholic drinks.
One factor that has received less attention, though, is the number of friends we have and the effects this may have on our health. What effect does the size of your friendship circle have on your health? Is it positive or negative? Is there a magic number of friends one needs to be happy?
It seems there are two sides to the coin. The number of friends you have can impact your health both positively and negatively. It all depends on other elements involved in those friendships.
It Depends on the Person
First, it is important to recognize that there is no magic number of friends required for improved health. This will vary from person to person.
According to Alicia Arbaje, M.D., M.P.H:
It’s all about whether you have people in your life who meet your need for emotional, spiritual and other kinds of support.
Introverts may be content with far fewer friends than extroverts, with no negative effect on their health at all. Extroverts, in contrast, may experience negative health effects such as loneliness if their friendship circles are not wide enough.
It Depends on the Strength of the Connection
Second, the strength of the connections we form is crucial, as Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D, highlights:
People who have more, or more complex, social resources vs. people who have less, have higher rates of survival.
It’s not just about having more friends. It’s about the complexity of the social resources. Here the “quality over quantity” argument holds true. Someone who has three close friends may be just as happy, if not happier, than someone with a larger social circle, solely because of the depth or the complexity of those three relationships.
If anything, having more friends could lead to negative effects such as alcohol addiction and drug abuse due to peer pressure.
In addition, a larger social circle can also lead to role strain, which is a sense of frustration that one feels over having too many social obligations (placing pressure on your time and energy) and the inability to fulfill the social role of a friend. This inability can cause frustration and stress, and as a result can have an adverse effect on your health such as fatigue or even ulcers.
Research has also found that people were a lot happier in life if they were satisfied with the friends they had, regardless of the number of friends they had.
Finding a Balance
While research clearly points to the positive effects of friendships for our general well being, emotionally and physically, the number of friends we have can have both a positive and negative effect on our health.
It all depends on certain factors such as the individual and their specific needs as well as the depth of the connection. Having too many friends, for example, can very often be bad for your health. This could lead to alcohol or drug abuse (as a result of peer pressure) and stress and frustration (as a result of role strain). The important thing is to find a balance and see what works in your life.
Featured photo credit: Andres Rodriguez via flickr.com