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Relationships and romance, Social and behavioural

The importance of friends

'Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships' by Robin Dunbar (Little Brown), reviewed by Talia Drew.

27 July 2021

We all know that friendship is important. The lack of physical social contact with friends and family over the past year has highlighted how important it is within my own life. The science behind friendship was not something I had previously thought about – that all changed when I embarked on this literary journey with Robin Dunbar as my rudder.

Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist by background, eloquently summarises his research of several decades. He looks into our social relationships both past and present, considering how we existed within tribes. Dunbar’s number, he argues, is the number of social relationships we can tolerate cognitively – around 150. Friends collates theory and research including neuroscience, genetics, biology, anthropology, evolution, and animal studies. It is a fascinating insight into the evolution of humanity, the impact of technology on our social relationships, gender differences in friendships, how friendships change over time, and the role that family plays in our external friendships.

We are bombarded with threats to our emotional and physical wellbeing, and tend to be aware of the risks we take in our lifestyle choices. ‘Quit smoking’, ‘take up more exercise’, ‘consider your dietary choices’ are all messages we are, quite rightly, regularly exposed to via healthcare professions, the government and social media. Dunbar argues that our social connections may have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing, perhaps more so than lifestyle risks like lack of exercise. It may be more important for us to consider the status of our social relationships and friendships for longevity, emotional wellbeing and physical health, rather than say, quitting smoking. Whilst he is in no way promoting smoking or other possibly harmful activities, the gravity of the statement really does hit home. Are friendships that essential to our lives? Dunbar argues that they are, and that more time should be spent considering our friendships in the context of health and wellbeing. Having devoured this book it now seems obvious that our social relationships do have such wide-ranging impacts, though it’s not often talked about.

This book is a fascinating read. It considers concepts and ideas at the core of being human, and at the forefront of our minds as we navigate out of a year of physical distance from social relationships. When working with individuals experiencing mental health difficulties in the NHS, I will now hold in mind the importance of connection and friendship. Psychology often considers a systemic perspective in mental health, and this book reinforces how those social systems are critical to a sense of self, wellbeing and general health.

- Reviewed by Talia Drew, Trainee Clinical Psychologist

See also our collection on friends.