THE BLOG
09/03/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Do You Have Too Many Friends?

We under-cultivate what is most important. And nowhere is this more so than with regard to our friends. The 80/20 principle suggests a provocative hypothesis - that roughly 80 percent of the value of our friendships will derive from 20 percent of our friends, from a very small number of people.

Why don't you see whether this is true for you?

Write down the name of your Top Twenty friends and loved ones - those with whom you have the most valuable relationships, ranked from the most important to the least important for you. 'Important' means the depth and closeness of the personal relationship, the extent to which the friend helps you in life, and the extent to which the relationship enhances your sense of who you are and what you can become. Do this now, before reading on.

Next, though this may seem a rather crass exercise, suspend your doubts and allocate a total of 100 points between the relationships in terms of their importance to you. For example, if the first person on the list is exactly as important as the next 19 down the list combined, allocate 50 points to him or her. You'll probably end up with a total of more than 100 points on the first run through, so keep doing it until you get the total to add to 100.

I don't know what your list will look like, but a typical pattern in line with the 80/20 principle would have two characteristics:

• The top four relationships - 20 percent of the total - would score most of the points - maybe 80 out of 100, and

• There would tend to be a constant ratio between the score of each ranking on the list and the score of the next number down. For example, number two may be two-thirds or half as important as number one; number three may similarly be two-thirds or half as important as number two; and so on. It's interesting to note that if the number one relationship is twice as important as number two, and so on down the list, relationship number six is only about 3 percent as important as number one!

Now, complete the exercise by noting against each name the proportion of 'friendship time' that you actively spend with each person - this should also add up to 100. Exclude time spent with someone when they are not the main focus of attention, for example when watching television or a movie. Take the total amount of time spent with the 20 people as 100 units and then allocate these. Typically, you will find that you spend much less than 80 percent of the time with the few people who comprise 80 percent of 'relationship value' to you.

In other words, we may be spending valuable time with many people who are not very important to us at all. We may even be spending a substantial amount of time with people who are not on the list at all - who are below the Top Twenty friendships. Why would we do this? The answer is often inertia and convenience. We might see neighbours a lot because they are close and invite us round.

We might see other people who are not important to us, because they want to see us, and we think it is rude to refuse. We might not see some really valuable friends, because they don't live close and we find it hard to match up times that are suitable for us and them. It is not at all unusual for people to see quite a lot of 'friends' that they really don't like very much at all. And couples often see friends when only one of the couple really has a close relationship with the person or people concerned.

The action implications should be plain. Go for quality of friendships rather than quantity. Do not spend an average amount of time with all friends. Spend your time and emotional energy reinforcing and deepening the relationships that are most vital to you. Do not see people just because you've got in the habit of meeting and reciprocating invitations.

Yet there is another crucial wrinkle, to do with the chronology of relationships in our lives. It turns out that our capacity for close relationships is far from infinite. There is another trade-off between quality and quantity that we should heed.

The Village Theory

Anthropologists stress that the number of exhilarating and potent personal relationships we can establish is limited. Apparently, the common pattern of people in any society is to have two vitally important childhood friends, two vital adult friends, and two 'advisers' whom we rely on heavily, such as a priest, doctor, or counsellor. Typically there are also two powerful sexual partners who eclipse the others. Most commonly, we fall in love only once, and there is one member of our family whom we love above all others. The number of really significant personal relationships is low, and it is remarkably similar for everyone, regardless of their location, sophistication, or culture.

This has led to the 'village theory'. In an African village, all these relationships happen within a few hundred metres, and they are often formed within a short period of time. For modern people, these relationships may be spread all over the planet and over a whole lifetime. Still, the relationships constitute a 'village' that we each have in our heads.

And once the slots are filled, they're filled forever.

The anthropologists say that if you have too much experience, or too many close friends, too early, you exhaust your capacity for further deep relationships. This may explain the superficiality often observed in those whose profession or circumstances force them to have a great number of relationships, such as salespeople, interviewers, 'celebrities', or those who move frequently from one country or region to another.

J G Ballard quotes a rehabilitation project in California for young women who had mixed with criminals. The women were no more than 20 or 21 and had had a rough life. The project introduced them to middle-class volunteers, people of goodwill and education who befriended the girls and invited them into their homes.

Many of the subjects had been married at an incredibly early age. Many had had their first children at 13 or 14. Some had been married or the equivalent three times by the time they reached 20. It was not unusual for the girls to have hundreds of lovers or to have had close relationships and children with men who were then shot dead or jailed. They'd been through everything - relationships, motherhood, breakups, and bereavements - experiencing the whole gamut of human experience while still in their teens.

Do you think it would be wonderful and calming for these unfortunate girls to experience a different kind of life, where people wanted to take a genuine interest in them and to give to them rather than abuse them?

Well, think again. The project was a total fiasco. Why? The women were incapable of forming any new deep relationships. They were all used up. Their relationship slots had been filled, forever.

This sad story is salutary. It also fits with the 80/20 principle - a small number of relationships will account for a large proportion of emotional value.

Fill your relationship slots with extreme care and not too early! Leave room to have one or two wonderful relationships in later life.

Without relationships we are either dead to the world - or dead. Although banal, this is true. Our friendships are at the heart of our lives, and help to determine who we are, and how happy and successful we will be. But quantity is the enemy of quality. We can only define and extend our individuality via deep friendship and collaboration with a few other people.

Yet most of us don't spend enough time or give enough attention to our true best friends. If I have persuaded you of that, do something about it. By making a few simple and congenial changes to the time you give your friends, you may hugely increase your happiness and that of the people around you.