The Science of Friendships: Jennie Allen Shares the Secret to Building Deep Community in a Lonely World
I still remember the day when the thought occurred to me that I didn’t have any friends.
I should clarify: I had plenty of friends, but those friends and I all had very full lives, which meant that our interactions were erratic—and rare. Back then, I was neck deep in parenting young kids as well as traveling a lot, speaking, and doing events with IF:Gathering, the organization I founded. And while being on the road provided plenty of life-giving interactions with other women, reentry at home often came with a sting. Did any of my “friends” even realize I’d been gone? Did they know that I’d returned?
This was not my friends’ fault, of course. They had obligations, commitments, relationships, and jobs of their own. In fact, they likely were asking the same questions about me: “Does Jennie know what’s going on in my life? Does she even care?”
Isn’t this familiar? We’re all just kind of waiting for connection to find us. We spend hours alone in our crowded, noisy, screen-lit worlds, we invest only sporadic time with acquaintances, and then we expect close friends to somehow appear in our busy lives. We think our acquaintances should just magically produce two to five BFFs. Then, we believe, our relational needs will be met.
But community is bigger than two or three friends. Community should be the way we live.
Time is our best asset when it comes to building deep community. Unless and until you and I get serious about logging time with people—significant, consistent time—we simply can’t enjoy the level of friendship we long for, the kind of relationship that makes us feel connected and known. How do I know this? Because a few very smart people have quantified what it takes to be a friend.
It takes two hundred hours together for an acquaintance to become a close friend. Let me tell you where that little tidbit came from. The University of Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar said our relational spheres comprise layers of people who fall into categories such as acquaintances, casual friends, friends, good friends, and intimate friends. But what was groundbreaking about his work was the fact that he put numbers to those categories. While we can maintain roughly 150 meaningful relationships at a time, he suggested only fifty of those people would be considered “friends” and only five would be considered “intimate friends.”
Inspired by Dunbar’s research, University of Kansas professor Jeffrey Hall began poking around at those various relational layers: How did a meaningful relationship move from being a casual friend, say, to a friend? What type of investment was needed for this transition to occur? How long would it take? The results of the research he dove into are fascinating to me. As reported in Psychology Today, “He found that it took about 50 hours of interaction to move from acquaintance to casual friend, about 90 hours to move from casual friend to friend, and more than 200 hours to qualify as a best friend.”
This all begs the question: With the people you consider your most intimate friends, how many hours have you logged? That impromptu trip to the mall that lasted a couple of hours? That’s 1 percent of an intimate relationship logged. The cookout in your backyard that spans an entire summer’s afternoon? You’ve just racked up 3 percent of a ride-or-die friendship. The constant togetherness at the two-day women’s retreat? That’s a good 25 percent right there. My guess is that the reason you feel close to certain people is that you have faithfully put in the time together.
Any guesses as to where to find that kind of time when we’re all too busy for friends? Yep. Mealtime—while you’re prepping, cooking, eating, and cleaning up food.
My team, my small group, my husband Zac’s family, my kids and all their friends—if I cook, someone will usually show up. My kids have learned to ask, “Is there enough for [fill in a number] people?” And sometimes there isn’t, but lots of times, it just works.
We have to become people who stay. We have to become friends who show up to chop things for a few hours and stay even later to do the dishes, not just to eat. And we need to do this consistently, time and time again.
I’m convinced a key reason for our loneliness is that we give up too easily. Friendships take time—a lot of time. A lot of working it out. A lot of showing up. A lot of tears. A lot of laughter. A lot of food. A lot of inconvenience.
We give up so easily because it’s costly. It’s messy. It’s hard. It is hard. Take a minute. Breathe in and accept that truth. Okay.
Now hear me: you can do hard things.
God is with you, in you, and for you. You, my friend, can show up.
You can hurt someone and apologize. You can be hurt and forgive.
You can choose consistency and inconvenience. And the friendship you gain will be worth it.
Adapted from FIND YOUR PEOPLE: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World © 2022 by Jennie Allen. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on February 22, 2022.
Jennie Allen is the founder and visionary of women’s organization IF:Gathering, the host of the top rated Made for This podcast (17 million downloads) as well as the New York Times bestselling author of Get Out of Your Head, which was the #1 bestselling religion title of 2020. Her latest book is Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World. For more information, visit www.jennieallen.com.