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HomeExecutive BriefHaving too many friends is bad for you, a new book claims

Having too many friends is bad for you, a new book claims

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What makes a best friend? It turns out it varies from place to place. A study found that in many Asian countries, it’s often built on an understanding that a relationship is about exchange as well as equality – “If I do this for you, I hope you will return the favour.”

The same study found that people in India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said what they valued most in a best friend was culture and intelligence, and their most frequent friendship activity was visiting museums and galleries.

By contrast, in the UK, a mere 16 percent were bothered about such things. Brits are 18 percent more likely to go to the pub with their friends than the rest of the world, which won’t surprise anyone.

Finding a dearth of books on platonic friendship compared to the countless books on romantic love, author, journalist and self-confessed friendship addict Elizabeth Day has set out to redress the imbalance with her own take on the topic.

Bullied at school – she moved from England to Northern Ireland where her accent was mocked – when Day got older and realised she was great at making friends, she set out to collect as many as possible. “It turns out I wasn’t just passionate about friendship, I was addicted to it. I had a physical and emotional dependence… I was a friendaholic.”

You might think: so what’s the big deal? How can having too many friends be a problem, when a 2017 report published by Relate found that 13 percent of people have none at all? Another report found that a lack of social interaction can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

As Day found to her cost, having too many close friends can also have a negative impact. The perfect number for good mental health is four to five; anymore and the benefits decline or disappear altogether. The demands of maintaining more than seven have even been linked to an upswing in depressive symptoms.

This fact resonated with Day, when she experienced the solitude of lockdown and began to re-evaluate: “All this time I’d been busily making and maintaining connections and I’d actually undermined the thing that was most important to me. I’d become a worse friend to the few who really counted in my desperation to be accepted by the many I barely knew.”

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Day realised that “the kindred spirits you drop everything for, whose calls you answer at four in the morning, who you know will be there in times of crisis, simply don’t come along very often. And friendship lived with that kind of loyal intensity can only extend to a handful of people.” Essentially, we don’t all have to be each other’s closest friends.

Turning to her own experience of suffering multiple miscarriages, Day reveals how tragic moments can provide the most valuable lessons in who your friends really are. “This, then, was the place I found myself when my truest friends revealed themselves . . .”

Her best friend, Emma, always makes time for her, separate from her children. Her real friends don’t ask her to babysit, as they know how hard this can be for her. But they do come to her for parenting advice. ‘This makes me feel I am valued for who I am rather than for the babies I’ve failed to produce.”

Friendships aren’t always pain- free. Elizabeth also addresses the feelings of devastation when a friendship abruptly ends with ghosting, such as with Becca, a best friend who gradually stopped talking to her and ended up blanking Elizabeth in the street: “It was a slow-motion grief, unlike any other I had experienced.”

Perhaps, she reflects, some friendships are simply not destined to last forever. “Maybe, just like a romantic relationship, it’s ok to not be in love anymore.”

However, many friends you have, Day’s book is perceptive, compassionate and filled with relatable insights into all that is beautiful about friendship, with its most valuable point being that it should be about quality, rather than quantity.

“I couldn’t hope to be the friend I wanted to be to the ones who mattered the most if I kept spreading myself too thinly in a futile quest to prove I was, in some fundamental way, lovable.

“I was never going to be able to convince those school bullies retrospectively. It was pointless – unless I first befriended myself.”

(First published in Daily Mail Online)

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