The one where the Friends are together again

I’ll be there for you: 68% of Britons have watched at least one episode of Friends. © HBO

Can you have more than 150 friends? Yesterday, millions watched worldwide as the stars of hit sitcom Friends returned to the small screen. But just how many friends is the perfect number?

It was the moment fans around the world had been waiting for.

Nearly two decades after the last episode aired, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler and Joey were finally reunited, sipping coffee on the sofa in Monica’s New York City apartment.

There was just one difference. This time, the Friends stars were not in character.

For once, the six actors played themselves, reminiscing about the sitcom’s most memorable moments alongside a dazzling list of celebrity guests, including David Beckham and Justin Bieber. Even Malala Yousafzai made a brief appearance.

For British journalist Emily Baker, watching yesterday’s reunion special was an emotional experience. “There were the six friends I know and love as much as my own pals, laughing and joking as usual,” she wrote. “It felt like coming home.”

In the US, the show’s return was so hotly anticipated that streaming service HBO’s app crashed within minutes of the episode’s release.

The iconic group of New Yorkers are not the only friends reuniting this week.

Today, as the lockdown eases and the weather improves, millions of people across England are making plans to meet in groups of 30 to celebrate the May bank holiday.

For many, seeing friends again after months of isolation is crucial. Studies show that friendship is linked to both happiness and health. People with strong support networks are more likely to survive a stroke and even a heart attack.

But how many friends can one person have?

In 1993, an Oxford University professor named Robin Dunbar set out to answer that question.

To do so, Dunbar studied the brains of monkeys and apes. He discovered that the size of an ape’s neocortex correlated with the size of the social group they live in. As humans have bigger neocortices than apes, Dunbar concluded that the ideal human group size would also be larger – roughly 150 people.

Most people, Dunbar theorised, have five close friends. After that, they have 15 good friends, 50 moderate friends and 150 meaningful contacts – the kind of people they could bump into at an airport without feeling awkward.

For Dunbar, this theory made perfect sense. In 1086, the average village recorded in the Domesday Book contained 160 people. Today, most fighting units in modern armies are made up of 130 to 150 people.

But not everyone agreed with Dunbar’s number. Two American anthropologists suggested an alternative maximum of 290 friends, based on studies of US social networks.

Now, a group of Swedish researchers say they have debunked Dunbar’s number for good.

The scientists repeated Dunbar’s research with updated data and methods. Earlier this month, they concluded that the size of the neocortex is irrelevant. If you put in enough effort, you can have more than 150 friends.

For Johan Lind, the implications are clear: “We can learn thousands of digits of pi, and if we engage with lots of people, then we will become better at having relationships with lots of people.”

Can you have more than 150 friends?

Friends reunited

Of course, say some. The Swedish researchers are right. Dunbar’s number is outdated. Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate. In the digital world, it is easier than ever before to stay connected to hundreds of people. And it is ridiculous to have a “one size fits all” model for friendship – the most extroverted can easily name more than 150 friends.

Definitely not, say others. As Robin Dunbar himself argues, the new analysis by the Stockholm scientists is “absolutely bonkers”. The connections we have on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter are not true “meaningful contacts”. It is definitely possible to know more than 150 people, but it is not feasible to maintain an intimate friendship with all of them.

You Decide

  1. What makes someone a good friend?
  2. Why is Friends still so popular?

Activities

  1. Imagine an alien lands on Earth next to your school. Make a leaflet for them explaining how to make – and keep – friends.
  2. In groups, come up with your own proposal for a new television programme, play or book about a group of friends. Write a profile with some key background information about each character.

Some People Say...

“Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BC – 43BC), Roman statesman, lawyer and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Friends is one of the most successful television shows of all time. The last of the 236 episodes, which aired in May 2004, was watched by more than 50 million people in the US alone. And today, Friends is the most watched programme by UK viewers on subscription streaming services. Journalist Clare Thorp believes Friends was so successful because its characters were normal people who found a new family in their friends, even when their biological families let them down.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether friendship, and the maximum number of friends someone can have, varies across cultures. Some critics of Dunbar’s number believe that the theory only applies to middle income Western societies. For example, one group of British-Dutch researchers found that low-income Jamaicans, who carefully cultivate casual friendships in large mobile phone contact lists, often have many more than 150 friends.

Word Watch

Friends
The American sitcom followed the lives of six 20-somethings living in Manhattan and ran from 1994 to 2004.
Malala Yousafzai
A 23-year-old Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bank holiday
A national public holiday in the UK. The name originates from the late 19th Century, from days when banks were closed for trading.
Neocortex
The part of the brain responsible for conscious thought. In humans, it accounts for roughly half the volume of the brain.
Domesday Book
A survey of land and resources in England and Wales ordered by King William the Conqueror. It is Britain’s earliest public record.
Dunbar’s number
Dunbar’s research was so popular that 150 became known as Dunbar’s number. It was used to design office buildings.
Anthropologists
Anthropology is the scientific study of humanity, both in past and present societies.
Johan Lind
Lind is a researcher at Stockholm University, and one of the authors of the new study on friendship.
Pi
In mathematics, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. In 2005, Lu Chao of China recited 67,890 digits of pi, winning a Guinness World Record.

Subjects

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