Thanks to technology (hello, Facebook) it's now possible to quite literally never lose touch with anyone you've ever met. But when it comes to your social circle, research proves that bigger might not always be better.

By By Colleen Travers
Updated: September 08, 2017
Photo: Guido Mieth/Getty Images

I like to think I am a fairly friendly person. Yes, I suffer from the occasional resting you-know-what face, but those who actually know me don't fault my facial muscles for their constant sloping downward. Instead, I believe that they think of me as a good listener who will never let you get ice cream alone-all the important traits of a good friend.

Previously, as an out-of-state student at a state college where most people already knew one another, I had to cast my net wide to find a social circle. Thankfully between the friends I met in my dorm and in the sorority I joined shortly after orientation, there weren't many occasions when I was forced to be alone. But as I've gotten older, keeping up with a robust friendship roster in addition to making-gasp!-new friends seems particularly draining. Plus, as life gets busier with work, family, and just general adulting, I find that I cherish alone time in a way I didn't before. (But how much alone time do you really need?)

All of these points did not manage to squash my rage one night recently when my husband and I took a walk to the grocery store to pick up a last-minute ingredient for dinner. My (extremely social) husband came outside where I was waiting with our dog and mentioned he had seen an acquaintance from our neighborhood inside who had asked about me.

"Go in and say hi," he said.

"That's okay, I'm sure I'll bump into her around town sometime," I replied.

"You're so anti-social," he responded.

"I am not, I'm just socially conservative!" I quipped back.

While I know he was joking (mostly, I think), my husband's comment gave me pause. Maybe I am getting a little anti-social.

So imagine my delight when a few weeks later I heard that genetics could play a big role in how social (or anti-social) I was. Yep-researchers from the National University of Singapore discovered that two genes-CD38 and CD157-which are considered your social hormones, could be responsible for dictating whether someone is outgoing or more reserved. People with higher levels of CD38 tend to be more social than others due to the amount of oxytocin it causes to be released, the scientists reported.

I have to admit, it was a relief to actually have a "reason" to not feel like grabbing a coffee or a quick chat with someone. It's almost like wishing you had blue eyes but knowing you can do nothing about it! So brown eyes and some "me" time will just have to do. (P.S. Here's how to carve out time for self-care even if you have none.) I joked with my husband that even if I wanted to be more social, my DNA prevented it. While I know this isn't completely true, hearing about this research did take the edge off those times I simply smiled and waved at someone (and then promptly kept walking) versus stopping to have a full-fledged 20-minute convo I wasn't really into.

Even if you're genetically inclined to be more social, having a gaggle of girlfriends to fill your happy hours and weekends isn't necessarily a win either. In fact, one long-time researcher and British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., who studies the impact of human interaction and relationships, reported that the size of the human brain actually imposes a limit on your social circle. Dunbar (who published these findings back in 1993 in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences but has gone on to talk about the "Dunbar Number" ever since) explains that your brain maxes out your social circle at 150 people-that's basically all it can handle. If that seems like a lot, start to consider everyone you casually socialize with, from your book club to your Saturday morning yoga class, and you'll find you probably surpass that number pretty quickly. And, of course, this doesn't mean it's bad to spark up a casual friendship with your coworkers or the barista you see every morning, but if you have nearly 150 friends (I'm exhausted just thinking about that!), research would seem to show that you'll be spreading those friendships thin, which leaves less room for "real" connections.

The thing is, social media has made it possible to have well-over 150 "friends." But it's no secret that your growing list of Facebook friends doesn't automatically equate with social happiness. In fact, two studies published in Computers in Human Behavior found just the opposite. The first found that people who use Facebook often (take your friend Becky from second grade, who doesn't miss sharing a post about her daily workout or what she had for lunch) are actually more lonely in real life. The other discovered that having a large network on social media-and therefore being susceptible to every single new puppy, vacation, or engagement pic-can put a serious damper on your mood.

Unsurprisingly, my social media friendships and interactions mirror those in the real world. I post sparingly, and when I do, it's usually about my cute puppy or even cuter kid. And I don't throw my "likes" out to just anyone-I save them for beloved coworkers who have moved away or my English teacher who always recommended good books.

What's more, when you look at someone's ability to form and maintain closer relationships and friendships, Dunbar's body of work says that number taps out at just five people at any one time in your life. Those people can change, but yep, your brain can only handle five meaningful relationships at once-another personally validating fist pump for me. The five people in my life that I have meaningful relationships with are people who have been in my life since childhood. While we don't live in the same area, maintaining a relationship with them feels easy because the quality of our friendship is solid, even if the amount of time we see each other isn't. Sometimes we only talk once a month, yet they are still the people I call when I have news to share-good or bad-and vice versa, so it feels like we never miss a beat.

For myself, I've noticed my friendships have a way of ebbing and flowing to parallel what's going on in my life. That sorority I joined many moons ago and the friends I collected throughout my college years? I can tell you exactly what they are all doing thanks to my social media newsfeed, but the number of them I've seen in person and had an IRL laugh with? One. And I'm okay with that. Some may call that anti-social, but I like to think I'm just listening to science, saving room in my brain for my five people who will boost my health simply by being in my life. (Note: I'll still get ice cream with you, though, even if you aren't one of my five people. Because I like you-and ice cream.)



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