What the Dunbar Number means for your healthy social interactions

The Dunbar Number states that we can really only maintain up to 150 people in our personal network. But there are other just as important implications of Dunbar’s work. I think this infographic from Boston University illustrates it nicely. A person with healthy relationships necessarily has them at various levels of intimacy. There can only ever be a handful (up to 5) in their closest circle (the support clique).

When we talk about accepting and embracing your emotions and connecting with a compassionate person about them in order to process them and let them go, it is primarily with the support clique (and to a lesser extent the support group) that this is done. Being open emotionally doesn't mean that you are open equally with everyone. It's not an all or nothing situation (pro tip: It so very rarely ever is).

[Also see my post on the Dunbar Donut]

image from web.archive.org

Fostering 4AM Friends

What is the essence of what’s most important in life? Of all the ideas and resources I’ve encountered, I think the Harvard Study of Adult Development  has the best distillation. One of the study’s directors—George Vaillant—summarized the findings by saying “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” The current director of the study—Robert Waldinger—said “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The study found there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80: “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”

I call these people “4am friends”. And the key to having a 4am friend is knowing how to be a 4am friend.

The sad fact is that the number of these types of friends that we report having has been gradually declining. The most common answer to the question “how many close friend do you have?” is now 0. And there is a gender divide on this, with men faring much worse than women. Susan Pinker makes a compelling case that the discrepancy in life expectancy between men and women is this very fact. And the Roseto Effect  shows the healing power of a healthy, close-knit community.

So how do we fix the problem? My current idea is to foster “moais”—modeled after the Okinawan social group—for groups of 4–5 same-sex peers. Then teach the groups how to be open and vulnerable and non-judgemental, and all of the things that our society isn’t teaching them (or worse, is teaching them not to do).

(If anyone finds this compelling, let me know. I’d love to collaborate on a trial. Thanks!)

I will leave you with a simple call to action: reach out to one (or more!) of your close friends—or perhaps one you’d like to be closer to—share this link  with them, and tell them explicitly that they can call you at 4am or anytime to talk to you about anything. It will strengthen your friendship, and increase the health and happiness for you both. ❤️

The elephant in the room: ACEs, trauma, relationship dysfunction and how to overcome it

Anyone on this forum believes in the importance of community. Underlying a strong community is the fundamental need make relationships a priority and to know how to have healthy ones.

The problem is that there are a lot of people out there that just don’t have the skills to do so. Social dysfunction begets social dysfunction. If someone grow up in an environment where people don’t know how to manage their emotions and deal with conflict in a healthy way, they will learn the wrong way to do it and perpetuate those behaviors into future relationships.

One of the most eye-opening studies that illustrates this is the ACEs study from Kaiser in the mid-90s . This 7-minute video by the study’s director Dr Vincent Felitti is a great overview of it. Nearly ⅔ of people in the study grew up with at least one adverse childhood experience (I personally had 5 of the 10 in my childhood). And this was of a population of primarily middle-class, college educated people!

If we are going to make progress on people connecting in a community, we need to start by address the root cause of the disconnection: we need to help these people confront and process their trauma and teach them the skills to build and maintain healthy relationships going forward.

This  is a great series of illustrations that sums this up well. We need to create more “warriors of love” in the world.

The Bowlby Conjecture—how we humans were designed to thrive and why we struggle in modern civilization

John Bowlby developed the concept of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). It is the set of environmental factors that constrained and directed the evolution of a particular species. For example one aspect of the the EEA for polar bears is a cold environment of snow and ice. That led to polar bears having thicker fur and fat for insulation, and a white coat for blending in with their surroundings to better stalk their prey.

We humans had our own EEA: the area in South and East Africa during the Pleistocene epoch. The environment wasn’t just the landscape, climate, and biosphere. It also included the social structure of pre-human primates and humans. Our ancestors lived in nomadic hunter/gatherer bands of 30–45 individuals, comprising a multi-generational extended family primarily. They spent the vast majority of their time outside in nature, moving their bodies (walking, running, grasping, squatting… and using their hands for fine motor activities). They ate a diet of both raw and cooked whole foods, primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, and some meat. They had shared stories and experiences that they told and retold which helped maintain group cohesion.

Genetically modern humans appeared at the latest 50,000 years ago. This was when our DNA—which is the source code to Human OS version 1—had its last major update (which was very likely the ability to speak). The environment that our modern ancestors lived in between 50k–12k years ago was the one for which our DNA has been optimized.

From the agricultural revolution through the industrial revolution into the information revolution today, slowly but surely some of our ancestors started making decisions to live in ways that they felt were more convenient. But that whole time our genes stayed essentially the same. There were some minor variants—skin, hair and eyes to be better suited to different climates, lactose tolerance, and even sickle cell anemia (to protect against malaria). But on the whole the core Human OS was—and is—still running, optimized for a much different environment than we have today.

In modern civilization today (at least for the people who are likely to be reading this), most of us spend a large portion of our days inside, sedentary, staring at screens, eating processed foods, and spending far more time alone more often than any point in history. We now have a society that is orders of magnitude bigger than the 150 or so individual relationships Dunbar determined we were optimized to have. We have created a world in which it is possible to satisfy our Physiological and Safely needs (the bottom two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy) without needing to truly invest in Love and Belonging. Anyone without that foundation is also left deficient on the two levels above (Esteem and Self-Actualization). This has led to increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, which were already high to begin with.

I’m not saying we need to go back to bands of hunter/gatherers in order to have healthy and fulfilling lives. But we do need to look at the core daily aspects of that lifestyle and make a point of incorporating them into the foundations of our lives. Yes diet, yes exercise, yes being out in nature. But of critical importance are good relationships and social connections. The closer we can live our lives adhering to those aspects of our ancestors, the happier and healthier we will be.

There many diverse data sources that support the consilience of this conjecture:

I would appreciate any other references that either support or refute this conjecture. 🙏🏼

Tangential but also key to this conjecture is the fact that we humans have excellent deception skills. In fact we are so good at it, the only way we can really deceive others is to also deceive ourselves. Why else would we—individually and as a collective—continue to make choices that are not ultimately in our long-term best interest?