I couldn’t go past this paper titled “How many hours does it take to make a friend?” by Jeffrey A Hall, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
As someone who finds the whole process of relationships a complete mystery, I was interested to see if the paper provided any useful insights into the friend making process.
I’m also aware that social isolation in university students is one of the stronger predictors of poor wellbeing and academic outcomes. So I am guessing there are a few of you out there who might be interested in some tips on how to make friends.
Let’s dig into it a bit…
First a bit of background knowledge………
So let’s start with a few facts of which you are probably already aware.
- Having friends is a predictor of happiness – nothing particularly groundbreaking there.
- You can’t have friends unless you know how to make friends – again, not a surprise.
- To sustain friendships you need to prioritise spending time with friends.
- We don’t always prioritise our friends cause life is busy and there are lots of shows on Netflix.
How about a few facts/findings of which you might not be aware….
First, there is supposedly a limit on the number of friends that our brains can handle which is around 150. I’m not totally sure on the validity of this, but let’s go with it for the moment [note: I can at best handle about 10 friends].
Not all of those people are going to be ‘best’ friends. There are different levels of friendship and the numbers in each level decrease with increasing closeness. So there are our closest friends and family (1-5 people), our ‘good friends’ (10-15 people), our broad friendship group (40-50), and then our bigger acquaintances/community group (120-150). Our closest friends are those with whom we exchange our fears and hopes and dreams. They are the people we can tell ‘everything’. As a friendship decreases in closeness, so does the level of sharing of intimate content.
Why do we have friends? Well one basic idea is that humans have an innate need to belong. To function well psychologically we need to feel like are part of something, that we are valued, and that we have something to offer others. Without close friends or family, we can feel isolated and lost and unimportant.
But there is a challenge. The more friendships we try to sustain, the less time we can spend on any individual friendship which reduces the likelihood that any one of our friends becomes a close or ‘best’ friend. And close or ‘best’ friends give us the most social rewards. So we are constantly evaluating how much time to spend with who, to maximise our feelings of belonging.
When it comes to making friends, there is something called the ‘clicking model’, which suggests that when we meet new people, we quickly make an assessment of who we like and who we think we could make a friend. After that initial ‘click’, it then requires time spent together to make a friendship grow.
How much time?
Well research to date has suggested about 3-9 weeks for a friendship to develop and about 3-4 months for a close friendship. If you met someone 4 months ago, and they aren’t your best friend, its unlikely that they will be.
But it is not really about elapsed time. It is about the quantity of interaction during that time. The greater the quantity of interaction, the more time to nurture a friendship.
So how long (in hours) to move from a casual acquaintance to a good friend. Well if you are in a confined setting (i.e. proximity) then the estimates are about 160 hours. That sounds like a lot! Do any of us really want to spend 160 hours together? You can get something approximating a friendly basic relationship after 60 hours (about the time taken to watch all the Game of Thrones episodes).
What did Jeffrey A Hall’s research show?
Jeff (I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him Jeff) wanted to explore further this issue of the time taken to develop different levels of friendship. He also wanted to better understand the conditions under which friendships can develop, and what to do during this time to enhance friendship development.
He did this via two related studies.
In the first study, he conducted an online survey of 355 individuals who had recently relocated to a new state (in the US). He asked them to specify a person they had met since moving, classify them in terms of friendship level (best friend, good friend, friend, casual friend, classmate/coworker, friend of a friend, acquaintance), analyse how much time they had spent together since meeting and how they had spent that time.
In the second study, he followed new college students for their first semester of college. He asked them to identify 2 individuals they had met since starting, classify them in terms of friendship level, estimate the time they had spent with those people over the course of the semester, and describe the nature of their interactions in terms of what they talked about.
What did he find?
How close a participant felt to the identified person was function of time spent with that person, and how that time was spent.
In terms of time, the more time spent with the person – the greater the closeness reported.
It generally took around:
- 10 hours or less to form an acquaintance
- 30-60 hours in the first 6 weeks for an acquaintance to become a casual friend
- 80-100 hours to go from casual friend to a good friend
- 200+ hours to go from friend to ‘best’ friend
To put that in context, a 6-week period contains 1008 hours. Let’s assume 8 hours a night of sleep and 37.5 hours a week of work. That leaves you with 447 hours. To get and maintain a ‘best friend’, that is basically half of your free time. You can see how difficult it would be to maintain close friendships with multiple people.
Jeff also found that to move from one friendship level to the next required an increased investment in time. So if you have a casual friendship that you want to move to the next level, you need to up the amount of time spent with that person. Of course, upping the time spent with one person comes at the cost of others, so balancing the needs of your friends in terms of just time is a legitimate challenge.
But it wasn’t just about time. How that time was spent is important also.
Obligatory time spent with someone at work or college/uni generally led to less closeness. Turns out having to be around someone for work purposes, is not a recipe for burgeoning friendship.
Instead it was time spent on non-work activities or projects that was important. And this makes sense. When you commit to spending your free time with someone, it signals you want the friendship to go to the next level. Those activities don’t need to be glamorous either. In the study, watching TV and gaming together were two of the most effective activities in terms of building a friendship.
It was also important what they talked about. Jeff found that friends who talked about more personal topics (catching up, talking about events since last saw each other, serious conversations, playful talk, talk that expresses love and attention) increased their closeness over time. In contrast those who made small talk (e.g. current events, pets, sports, TV) showed reducing closeness over time [Note: I finally have some research to demonstrate that small talk sucks!!]
Take home messages
In a previous post on relationships I suggested that viewing relationships as a mutual exchange of goal support could be a simple, yet powerful way to think about how to make and keep new friends.
Jeff’s work highlights that we need to consider that close friends are built through a significant investment of time, outside of work, through increasingly personal exchanges and shared leisure activities. We simply don’t have the time to turn all of our friendships into close ones, so we need to accept that our really close knit friend group might only consist of 1-5 people.
For those of you who might be feeling socially isolated as a student, there are a couple of considerations that come out of this work.
The first is that settings in which you are obliged to be with others (e.g. tutorials) may not be the best settings in which to develop close friendships. Instead, look for social opportunities as part of clubs or societies, where students are spending their free time away from study.
The second is to acknowledge that it takes time to form close friendships. When we are feeling lonely, we can feel impatient with the process of getting to know new people. But take some comfort from the fact that proximity, time, engaging in shared leisure activities and more personal talk are reliable ingredients for building close friendships.
The third is that it is simply not feasible to build strong friendships with a large number of people. The ‘friend’ counts on our Facebook pages are a very inaccurate picture of just how many people we can have a meaningful close friendship with. It is easy to start thinking that everyone has more friends than you, but you may be mistaking their broader social group, with their actual close friends.
Me – i’ve done the maths and realised I have enough time for one friend. I’ll be sending out an email to my broader network and taking applications 🙂