What Is the Perfect Number of Friends?

Miranda, Carrie, Charlotte and an outlined silhouette on a background of arithmetic scrawling.
HBO/Sofia Kraushaar

Ramona Singer, of the former Real Housewives of New York, claimed she had 50 close girlfriends. And the reality star wasn’t speaking in hyperbole. She had literally counted…one…two…50 dear girlfriends. She’d say this fact so often that other housewives would roll their eyes. And yet, at her 63rd birthday party in the back room of Scarpetta, a Ramona (the scientific name for a group of white women above 14th Street) showed up to celebrate their friend. They even presented their host with a Chanel handbag, which, divided by 50 friends, comes out to something like $200 per friend. Maybe she really did have 50 close friends.

But, c’mon. Who actually has 50 close friends? The scale alone in keeping track of birthdays (a bare minimum of friendship) would take up a good portion of your year and finances. Zero friends is certainly too few. But 50? Too high. So, what’s the perfect number of friends?

For British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, this question isn’t a rhetorical exercise, but the focus of his life’s work. The scientist’s social brain hypothesis argues that there is a precise ceiling to the number of stable relationships people can comfortably maintain. Known as “Dunbar’s Number,” 150 is the tippy top limit—five being close loved ones, 15 being good friends, 50 being friends and so on. In other words, Dunbar explains, there are at most 150 people in your life that if you saw them at a random airport in some far-flung locale, you would unequivocally be able to go up to them and say “hi”. (No, your 2,034 Facebook “friends” do not count.)

One of the most significant factors limiting our social lives is our brains (or, one could say the human brain is unique in how it allows for so many deep relationships). It’s a cognitive challenge to keep track of more people. It’s also a time-budgeting problem—you have to invest in relationships, and the amount you invest seems to be proportional to the quality of your relationship. There’s absolutely no way Ramona Singer could have the time to send flowers to Christine after her knee surgery, check in with Arlene about gala ticket sales, be the emotional support blanket Elyse needs, remind Alyse (with an A) of Nicole’s birthday, send Andrea the name of the plumber, congratulate Carol on her daughter’s graduation, shit-talk all day on a thread with Pamela, Missy, Liz and Colleen—and that’s only one-fifth of Ramona’s Rolodex. By Dunbar’s hypothesis, Ramona’s claim is physically—and neuropsychologically—impossible.

In my non-reality TV, scripted research, the Sex and the City (aka a Seinfeld, Waiting to Exhale, Now and Then, Stand By Me, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) formula posits that the perfect number of friends is four: a Carrie, a Miranda, a Charlotte and a Samantha—if you will—with a rotating door of satellite friends in orbit. However, when Kim Cattrall didn’t return to the SATC reboot, And Just Like That…, friend groups everywhere wondered if three would do. If we look at the Thelma & Louise model (aka a Broad City, Insecure, Romy and Michele), the ideal shifts to “BFF mode,” or what evolutionary biology calls pair-bonded monogamous relationships. Though not uncommon in the animal world (see: lots of mammals and birds), forming this type of complex bond outside of mating is unique in the animal kingdom.

Romy and Michele in sepia on top of background of equations with quote about friendship.

So is the perfect number of friends one ride-or-die bestie who goes to bat for you when you lie at your high school reunion about inventing Post-It Notes? Or maybe it’s three larger-than-life characters, so that you have bench warmers to clink Cosmo glasses with in case one refuses to film. Or maybe those models are completely wrong. Maybe you need five best friends—one who lives with you in your NYC apartment, two who live across the hall, a kooky one with a guitar, and one who is your on-again off-again lover who also happens to be your roomie’s brother.

Or maybe art doesn’t imitate life as much as I’ve thought. Author Laura Hankin, whose novels often explore the complicated chemistry of friendship, tells me that her perfect number of adult friends—around five to ten whom she can tell most anything—is different from the number with which she provides her characters. Says Hankin: “My characters tend to have fewer friends than I do because I want to make them suffer. I'm sort of kidding, but I do often gravitate towards writing characters who are lonely or missing something in their lives, because it gives them more to overcome.”

For Hankin, giving her main characters a stable of besties would be akin to giving Romeo and Juliet cell phones. “Talking your problems out with a good friend over a cup of tea is a great way to solve those problems in real life, but maybe not the most interesting way in fiction,” she explains. From a writer’s point of view, 50 close friends would be almost impossible to craft into a story. For Hankin the author, friendships serve the story engine—complication and drama is the purpose of a friendship. For Hankin the person, friendships serve something deeper, and the complications and drama that come from them are a natural by-product of trying to maintain a deep relationship over time.

Still from Hello, Dolly! in sepia on top of arithmetic background.

There’s the science of it. There’s the art of it. But what does lived experience have to say about the perfect number of friends? My grandmother, the most popular person I knew, seemed to live life at the brink of 150. Of course, those 150 weren’t her besties, but she could roll up to a restaurant and get the Hello, Dolly! treatment from the entire staff. And yes, I do believe they would each and every one of them say hi to her at an airport halfway around the world. In fact, Dr. Alfonso, a Mexican doctor my grandma befriended in Puerto Vallarta, escorted my grandparents in Chicago suburbia to my very own high school production of Hello, Dolly!.

When my grandfather passed away, and my grandma moved into a senior living community, her friendship circle shifted. Single again (and not looking to mingle), she didn’t want to make new couple friends. Suddenly, boys once again had cooties and she was in a high school clique made of herself and the two Ruthies (no more, no less).

Madeline Lucas, LCSW, Therapist and Clinical Content Manager at Real, tells me that as we change—lean into career, family, age, etc.—our needs from our friends change. Different friendships, Lucas says, serve different purposes. In our 20s, friendships may serve the purpose of navigating the career world, or going out to meet new people or potential romantic partners. If you’re married in your 40s, “friendships may serve the purpose of an outlet outside the home, or to find validation for the challenges of raising children or rising in the workforce.” In your late 50s, friendships can be a place to reflect on growing older, or adjusting to life’s changing roles. “The number of friends matters less in my eyes than the role these friendships are serving, and how they can meet the needs of folks as priorities and circumstances change.” For example, “maybe someone is great for those nights out when you need a distraction, maybe another is perfect for when you need a long walk to talk through what’s going on in life.”

Friends certainly make life better. But they also make death better. My grandma’s funeral was standing-room only. She was deeply proud to be the matriarch of a very large family. But I can see the smirk on her face when I tell her in my dreams that her funeral was the hottest ticket in town, filled to the brim not just with family, but with lots and lots of friends. My wedding had 150 guests. I’m guessing my grandma’s funeral had more. But whether it’s being lifted in a chair during the hora or swallowed by a sea of hugs as memories spill over about the person you just lost and still don’t quite understand how you will ever live without them, to quote Mean Girls, the limit does not exist. In life and in death, falling into an arena of friends packed like sardines to lift you on the tips of their fingers sounds much nicer than hitting the ground and—splat.

Friendships can seem trivial. We can downplay them in relation to family. But unlike family, we must forge friendships and then tediously tend to them. Scientists like Dunbar understand that friendship is important to our species, and yes admittedly struggle to even define it. Friendship is this undefinable thing that takes so much time, so much energy, and so much sacrifice, it must be against our best interests. And yet, according to the social brain hypothesis, this evolutionary social bond developed to, as Dunbar says, respond to life’s problems of life and death. Friendships are a survival mechanism—whether it’s for the basics such as food, shelter and safety or modern-day qualms like dating, terrible exes, health scares, family drama, horrible bosses and, of course, if I should get Botox (and please be honest).

Real Housewives Ramona Singer and Sonja Morgan in sepia on arithmetic background.

Another night in Ramona Singer’s dining room on the Upper East Side, the New Yorker waxed poetic (again) about her 50 close friends to a group of women whom she specifically did not include in her 50-number head count. Somehow she’d acquired 50 dear friends but none of the social graces you’d think would help in doing so. And so, without reading the room, which was about to boil over, she continued: “Without this group of women, I would not be where I am today.” Sonja Tremont Morgan, sitting to Singer’s left, had had it. “SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT THEM!”

There is no perfect number of friends. The perfect number is simply that which helps you get by. But would we all be so lucky to have that one special friend who can tell you when to just shut the fuck up. I’ll clink a Cosmo glass to that.

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Dara Katz

Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...
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