Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Assumption College. She published an article in Psychology Today about “social capital.” Social capital refers to the networks of relationships among people which enables society to function effectively.
Dr. Cavanagh suggested the following activity. Make a list of the top 15 people in your life, ranked by the frequency and intimacy of your contact with them. Then circle the top 1.5 — yes, that means one person is cut in half, but it’s just for purposes of understanding our social capital.
These one-and-a-half people, according to her research, probably share a dwelling with you and likely see you at both your best, and your worst. We don’t put on masks for these people. We likely talk or text to them every day. In my case, the top people were Matt and Kent, and that’s certainly true for me.
She then had us draw a circle around the top five people on the list. These are folks who walk closely with us on our journey. They’re the people we call first when we’re stressed or when we need to laugh. Dr. Cavanagh says we are likely to have contact with these folks at least weekly in some form. Basically, we spend 40 percent of our social capital on these five individuals.
A third circle comprises the entire 15 on the list. These are good friends, about whom we care deeply. We know we can rely on them when we need support and we are in contact with them regularly. These 15 people comprise about 60 percent of our social capital.
If we continued to list names, at about 150 we’d hit a limit. Based on anthropological evidence, this is the maximum size of a functional social network for human beings. This doesn’t mean we can’t recognize or be familiar with many more than 150 people, but that we aren’t likely to maintain relationships with more than that. In this case, Dr. Cavanagh says “relationships” are those which contribute to our physical and emotional health. This 150 number is so well supported that it even has a name — Dunbar’s number — based on the work by psychologist Robin Dunbar.
Social media, such as Facebook, hasn’t changed this facet of social relationships. We may have a lot more than 150 “friends” that we occasionally share posts with on Facebook, but the same layering and numerical limits exist there as they do in face-to-face relationships.
I completed this activity as Dr. Cavanagh directed and in reviewing my list, it was exactly as she had predicted. My top 15 people are the folks who I call when I lose a loved one, when I want to go out, or when I need to share a story. They’re the ones who sit with me over wine or coffee, or give me books to read, or go shopping with me. These are the people — relatives and non-relatives — who are my friends. This month, I’m celebrating all of them!
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Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.