“Dunbar’s number” is a number you may want to know. It’s a number Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, came up with originally studying the brains and social circles of primates. When it comes to his number he isn’t monkeying around.
“Dunbar’s number” is 150. It’s the number of a person’s social circle. Dunbar says your brain can only hold a close connection with no more than 150. Out of the 150 your closest 15 are the most crucial when it comes to your mental and physical health. You turn to them for sympathy or to confide in. And the smallest number is 5—your close support group made up of your best friends and often family.
The problem is that more Americans are saying they have no close friends. That number has tripled in recent decades. The most common response to the question “How many confidants do you have?” is “zero.”
“Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” says Susan Pinker in her TED Talk. She says that one-third of the population say they have two or fewer people to lean on. Her study of the Italian island of Sardinia revealed that is has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland of Italy and ten times as many as North America. Pinker says that social interaction—having a good friend or two—is a factor in living longer.
It was for David. King Saul was his friend that turned into an enemy: a frenemy. Maybe you’ve had a friend who became an enemy. Sometimes a friend abandons us, snubs us, or stabs us in the back. There may be times we deserve those reactions. We don’t like it then, but we can rationalize why that would happen to us.
But sometimes we are doing good when we are given strong opposition. David was. All he had done was good. He played music for the king, killed giants for the king, and wiped out Philistines for the king. In the midst of this craziness David found a great friend in the unlikeliest of places: Saul’s own son Jonathan.
Their friendship brackets the six attempts by Saul on David’s life. The front end of the bracket: “Jonathan was bound to David in close friendship, and loved him as much as he loved himself. … (1 Sam. 18:1). The closing end of the bracket: “Jonathan then said to David, ‘Go in the assurance the two of us pledged in the name of the Lord when we said: The Lord will be a witness between you and me and between my offspring and your offspring forever’” (1 Sam. 20:42).
Friends can bracket the evil in our lives. Friends can help us live through the difficult people in our lives. Jonathan did so with David. Read the story of their friendship and you find three components of a great friend:
- clothing, and
Jonathan made a covenant with David. They spoke words of affirmation to each other. They each knew the relationship was valued. David knew where his friend Jonathan stood.
Then Jonathan clothed David with what he needed. He gave him his robe, armor, belt, and sword. Some people in your Dunbar number will be your friend because they think you can help them. A great friend is concerned about how they can help you.
And then Jonathan gave David the cover of protection. He protected him from Saul by giving him warnings. And he protected David from himself. David could have given up on his anointing and returned to shepherding. He could have let his anger get the best of him and retaliated. But he didn’t. True friends help us become all God intends for us to become.
You may be wishing you had a friend like Jonathan2. You do, you know. Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). His covenant with you is to always be with you (Matthew 28:20). He has clothed you in salvation and righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). And he has covered you with his protection (John 10:28).
You have a friend like Jonathan. So why not focus on being a friend like Jonathan? There’s one somewhere in your Dunbar number. A friend can help you live longer on this earth.
It’s your other one—Jesus—that will help you live through eternity.
Question: Who are the “five” within your Dunbar number?