Part 19 of Joy and Tranquillity digital guide

Robin Dunbar talks about social connection and wellbeing

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We humans are an intensely social species. Yet our real social world is, in fact, surprisingly very small-scale, just a few hundred people, in fact.

We create friendships by talking together: who’s doing what with whom now, reminiscences of times past, recollections of what we once did together. We often think of these conversations as something pleasurable, just a moment to enjoy. But in fact, the friendships we build up in this way have lasting consequences for our health and our wellbeing.

In fact, one of the surprises of the last decade or so has been the number of studies showing that how many friends we have, and especially the quality of those friendships, has more effect than anything else on our mental and even physical health, our sense of wellbeing and happiness, how much we trust those among whom we live, even how long we live.

So the quality of our friendships depends on how much time we devote to each of them. Even though conversations are the fulcrum on which friendships are built, there’s an intimacy about them that limits the number of people we can talk to at any one time, and this ultimately limits the number of close friendships that we can have.

To bond our wider social communities, we have to resort to much larger-scale activities like communal dances, social events, even religious festivals, where just taking part seems to be the important thing. In a remarkable way, these seem able to turn complete strangers into friends.

When a community lacks these activities, it lacks the very glue that binds its members together and quickly becomes a community of strangers who walk past each other on the other side of the street without even stopping to say hello.

About the speaker

Photograph of Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar is Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, with expertise in the evolution of sociality in primates and other mammals. He formulated the famous ‘Dunbar’s number’, indicating the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. His academic and research career includes the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool and University College London. He has written extensively, including the books ‘Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships’ (2021), ‘Human Evolution’ (2014), ‘How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks’ (2010) and ‘Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language’ (1996). His awards include the Huxley Memorial Medal (2015), the highest honour of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.