Yes, Having More Friends is Better
August 9, 2021
For those of us who have fewer close friends, it is reassuring to think that just having one or two close connections is enough to sustain us throughout our lives. And the quality of our relationships does matter. Our recent work shows that all Americans—men and women alike—benefit when they develop intimate and emotionally supportive connections with their friends. But quantity matters too. Even as our friendship circles appear to be shrinking, new evidence suggests that having a more robust social network is important.
Put simply, Americans with larger social circles are less likely to report feeling lonely or isolated. A majority (57 percent) of Americans who have no close friends—and an identical number of those with only one close friend—report feeling lonely at least once or twice in the past week. More than half (54 percent) of Americans with two or three close friends report feeling lonely as often.
In contrast, only about one in three (35 percent) Americans who report having ten or more close friends say they felt lonely in the past week. The accumulation of friends lessens our chances that we will feel socially isolated.
Even when controlling for a variety of factors, one of the most important predictors of social isolation is the number of people we count as close friends.[i] In fact, the number of close friends we have is a more reliable predictor of how often we feel lonely than having a best friend. In fact, nothing more strongly predicts the frequency with which we feel isolated from others or lonely than the total number of close friends we have.
It’s not just loneliness either—feelings of depression are also much less common among those with a larger number of close friends.
Depression is a common experience among the public, with nearly half (49 percent) reporting feeling depressed in the past week. But the prevalence of depression varies widely among the public. Americans with fewer close friends feel depressed much more often—60 percent of Americans without any close friends, and 57 percent of Americans with one close friend, report feeling depressed in the last week. In stark contrast, only 37 percent of those with ten or more close friends report feeling depressed over the past week.
Friendship may also benefit our physical wellbeing. Or at least how we feel about our physical health. More than half (51 percent) of Americans with ten or more close friends and nearly half (49 percent) of those with six to nine close friends report being very or completely satisfied with their personal health. In contrast, only 29 and 30 percent of Americans with no close friends and one close friend say they feel very or completely satisfied with their physical health.
There is a certain logic to all of this. Unless you are counting cohabitating spouses or partners, most, if not all, of our friends are living separate lives. They have their own concerns and priorities that may include taking care of children or aging parents, maintaining a relationship with a spouse, working a full-time job, or struggling with personal health issues. Even the closest friend will not always be available when we need them. And if they do not live near us, the best they may be able to offer is a supportive phone call.
There is another reason why expanding the range of options in our social support system is probably a good idea. Beyond the logistical challenge, not every person in your life is going to be well-equipped to help you manage the incredibly diverse number of personal challenges you will face. Your parents might be great at offering unconditional love and boundless encouragement, but they may have less insight to share when it comes to dating or navigating office politics.
Finally, relying on a single person to meet all our emotional needs leaves us vulnerable if something happens to this person or to the relationship. We see this play out when marriages fail. Divorced men generally fare worse than their spouses, in part because married women maintain a more robust social support system than their husbands. For many married men, their spouse is their only source of emotional support. That’s a lot for anyone to bear, and leaves divorced men in a potentially precarious position.
The benefits of friendship have been well documented, and most Americans appreciate the value of friendship. But the debate over how many friends we need is far from settled. These results suggest that more is better. This does not mean that Americans will benefit from the indiscriminate accumulation of acquaintances. But one conclusion to draw from these findings is that we should seek out more opportunities to connect with others to create close and lasting friendships.
[i] The logistic regression model predicted feelings of loneliness or isolation at least once in the past week and controlled for a variety of demographic attributes including age, gender, race, educational attainment, and marital status.