Understanding Your Social Circles
From the fabulous folks in your outer circle to the chosen family in your inner circle, your health and happiness thrive with relationships of varying depth.
In a world dominated by social media, with such an emphasis placed on the number of followers that you have on Facebook and Instagram, it’s easy to feel as though you need to prove your worth, and how likeable you are, based on the number of people you interact with, both online and off.
Sure, you might think you’re required to have a certain number of friends in your life to feel fulfilled or avoid loneliness, but that’s just not true. According to the experts, you could realistically have just five close friends and be completely socially satisfied. That definitely helps take some of the pressure off, but isn’t there some sort of secret sauce to a healthy social life?
If adulthood social pressures give you middle school flashbacks, you’re actually bumping up against your own biology. When it comes to the number of stable relationships that you can maintain with others, there’s a limit as well as a biological imperative. They call it “Dunbar’s number.” This is where the “ah-ha!” science comes in.
To put it simply, social scientist Robin Dunbar studied humans (as well as our biological cousins) to figure out that people are truly only capable of maintaining around 150 stable relationships at any given time. They also really need that tight-knit community to stay happy, healthy, and alive longer, so any past social rejections, losses, etc. can resonate for an unreasonably long amount of time — your inner caveperson is triggered by forced aloneness, because it’s always seeking safety in numbers.
“Your inner caveperson is triggered by forced aloneness, because it’s always seeking safety in numbers.”
Though a lot can affect your personal capacity for relationships, your “social capital” (time, health, and connections) funds your social health. Invest it wisely, and cha-ching! You make bank in all three pillars of wellness — mental, physical, social. Essentially, you become happier and healthier because you’re so socially supported. Cave-you relaxes and enjoys life because it’s generally safe and fun to do so.
Now that you know there’s a scientifically proven need (and cap on your capacity) for relationship, here’s the nitty gritty about how Dunbar’s number works:
- 150 is (roughly) the number of people in your personal community
- 50 (or so) of those people are who you’d seek to connect with the most
- 15 of them would be those who you consider your closest allies and confidants
- Five people would make up your core “family,” be they chosen or biological
Now, these aren’t hard and fast rules. The number of people you know and stay in touch with might be higher or lower, even within subgroups inside the larger group. But you get the idea, right?
Also, people can certainly move from one social group to another. For example, someone you used to consider a part of your core group might move to the group of 15, and vice versa. Relationships evolve just as much as individuals do, after all.
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The Magic Number for Core Relationships: 5
But what about relationship quality? The tune’s pretty familiar to most everybody on social media these days: No matter how hard you play the social numbers game, your purest happiness as a human just doesn’t come from digitally acquiring contacts and monitoring friends’ activity online. You get the greatest satisfaction from your tightest-knit social circle, generally comprised of about five people.
That feeling you feel when someone you haven’t seen in five years overshares online? It’s related to the social capital you just spent emotionally engaging with someone you’re really not all that connected to. You can “know” plenty of people, but in terms of maintaining the strongest two-way bonds, the biologically ingrained number is five or fewer.
Put simply, you’re naturally (and mentally) designed for just that handful of intimate, long-term relationships. Going back to Dunbar’s research, the human brain is only capable of maintaining a certain number of super-close relationships before it all becomes too overwhelming.
So, No Casual Friendships?
Not so fast. The social circles beyond your fab five play an important role in your level of happiness and health because they give you a sense of community, contribution, and purpose. Think of your work friends, coffee-date regulars, your mentor (or shaman) — the day-to-day interactions you enjoy. Though they fluctuate quite a bit more, 50 (or so) people in your life comprise the network with whom you exchange and invest most of your social capital.
Social capital works a lot like money. Chatting with an acquaintance builds your social self-esteem (like improving your credit score, but much less stressful). A pleasant interaction that brings joy and laughter into your day becomes a casual friendship you feel good about. Because you feel liked, you become friendlier, and therefore more likeable. You socialize more, and do so with a network of people who “fill you up” instead of draining your social capital.
As you nurture a healthy network of casual (but well-tended) friendships, socializing becomes less of an exhaustive spend and more of an investment in your own happiness, health, and success. You become surrounded by people who are excited to help you solve problems, change jobs, move houses, and celebrate life. And just like that, you’re rich — with the stuff that matters most, anyhow!
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Use that Wealth to Invest in the People You Care About Most
Virtual relationships can only go so far when the goal is to achieve true companionship and strong social bonds, so they often leave you wanting more. Deeper connections are made when you can spend time with others in person — sharing new experiences, enjoying meals together, and laughing at the same funny moments are what make you feel included and appreciated.
But life often gets in the way for all of us. Be it kids, work, or trying not to cry during Queer Eye, our other responsibilities push us to put our relationships on the back burner.
Here’s a challenge that’ll change your life, how you prioritize your time, and ultimately how close you are to your favorite people: Start prioritizing your inner, middle, and outer social circles. Here’s how the gurus of social health say to do it:
1. Zoom in on Your Inner Circle
Plan to prioritize your strongest supporters. This circle should include roughly five people (that magic number we discussed above). You can have fewer in this circle, though you typically don’t want more than a handful. A lot of people think their inner circle should be comprised of family members, but then they feel closer to other people. Skip the guilt and follow your instincts here — these should be the people who charge you up in the best ways, whoever they are.
They’re who you want to spend the most time with, even if that’s on the phone or online. You remember important details and make time to connect on a regular basis because they make you feel good about yourself, your life, and your relationships.
Don’t worry, you can have fewer than five people in this circle, so please don’t feel like you need to force yourself to pick five.
2. Middle Circle
This group includes up to 10 more people beyond your fab five. Again, you don’t have to force yourself to hit that number — there’s magic in simply identifying who could be in this circle of closeness.
This a great circle for people with whom you’d like to develop stronger, tighter bonds. You’ll likely have some family in this group as well as the strongest relationships from various stages in your life.
Identifying these important relationships helps you prioritize and strengthen the existing bonds, so they don’t weaken when you’re bogged down by adulthood.
3. Outer Circle
“Outer” may sound a little too far “out there” for your good friends, important colleagues, and family you don’t interact with as often, but it’s still quite close in terms of how these folks get prioritized in your life.
Think barbecue buddies, wedding invitees, and the people who you actually want to see at the next reunion. You’re choosing these 30 to 40 people over the 100 or so others in your real social network when it comes time to celebrate life with people you enjoy. The sense of community these relationships offer is an integral part of being a happy human being.
These are people who you’re happy to get to know better, though you might not think of them every day. They’re also the ones you might have to take notes on because you don’t see them as often or engage with them quite as deeply as you might like. Setting reminders and keeping track of details about these special people can help you deepen your relationship with them over time.
All of Your Social Circles Add Up to One Beautiful Community
Whether your entire social circle totals 200, or you tend to prefer to focus on a smaller community, relationships enrich your life. From the fabulous folks in your outer circle to the chosen family in your inner circle, your health and happiness thrive with community.
We all kick it solo instead of connecting sometimes, but it’s important not to let the day-to-day grind sweep you away. Fabriq makes it easy for you to keep in touch with the 50 people that bring you joy, helping you show up when it counts and stay close to the ones who matter most. Download it on Android or iOS — we’ll keep track of the little things and remind you when it’s time to reconnect.
It’s important to strike a balance between using technology as a helpful social tool and abusing it as a quick social fix to avoid real-life interactions. Digital wellness is a term used to describe how well you strike that balance.
Being honest with yourself about who you’re most invested in is the first step to organizing your friends into circles of closeness.
Set your sights on strong relationships and deeper connections to keep your social health booming. Need help? These conversation-starting questions really do the trick.