In a recent interview, Oprah Winfrey, TV host, author and billionaire philanthropist, revealed that she only really has three people in her life that she counts as a 'close' friend: broadcaster Gayle King, journalist and activist Maria Shriver, and personal trainer Bob Greene.
While those famous faces are not exactly the kind of friends everyone has, the tight number had the Internet in a flurry.
Of course, being in a position like Winfrey's where you not only possess wealth beyond most peoples' comprehension, boundless fame and connections, and, of course, a reputation for being one of the wisest and most insightful people in entertainment, would pose a unique challenge. How do you form these genuine connections with people who don't just want to be in your orbit for their own self-interest? A Pandora's Box of thoughts that come with how the rich and famous navigate friendship.
But while we may not be wise billionaires, having a limited number of close friendships surprisingly makes Oprah more relatable. As so many of us have experienced, growing up changes a lot about our friendships.
For those of us who came up in the age of social media, the idea of friendships has always been uncertain. We were blessed to have kids' shows and sitcoms that put healthy friendships front and centre and showed us that friends can be the family we choose. On the other hand, they instilled the idea of the 'nuclear' friendship group where if you didn't have a close group of friends — your Miranda, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha, etc. — you were doing something wrong. Then with social media becoming a pillar of our lives, our idea of friendship became even more warped — the criteria for 'friendship' online is slim. It was a numbers game and we were hardly running checks on all the vague acquaintances we were accepting.
By 2021, our online habits have evolved, and while our use of Facebook has waned over the years, the friendships that social media brings have only gotten weirder. With Instagram and Twitter, we now have 'followers' instead of friends. I may not be friends with someone; I may have never even have met them, but it means something that we follow each other on a little app. #FriendshipGoals has racked up 12.2 billion views on TikTok, but we're lonelier than ever. Oprah has 20 million followers on Instagram but her close friends make up less than 0.00015% of that figure.
Friendships look different in all areas of our lives, and as we grow. As Suzanne Degges-White PhD of Psychology Today writes, friendships can be categorised into four tiers: acquaintances, casual friends, close friends and intimate friends. Then we have Aristotle's theory of friendship that filtered people into friendships of utility, of pleasure, and of good.
Both theories make sense and speak to a general truth that human relationships are complicated and always subject to change. People can oscillate between these levels, but no matter how many people we may bump into on the street and wave at, or how much engagement our social posts get, we can all experience friendship exhaustion. All the relationships we hold, organic or not, require a certain level of maintenance, whether that look like a fortnightly meme share or a daily gab over coffee. Either way, it can be a lot to manage no matter how close you are.
So why is everyone making a fuss about Oprah, one of the busiest people in world, no doubt, only leaning on a core group of 3 people? Perhaps we initially assume that those are the only friends Oprah has (she's bloody Oprah, dammit). And maybe it's our inner teens briefly steering the wheel where we think to put the word 'only' in front of that number in the first place, when really, she could be on to something.
So, is keeping a tight group of close friends potentially better for us? Well, it turns out that it kind of is.
Feeling close to people has immeasurable benefits on our mental health, and research shows that people who have reported feeling happy with the number of friends they have, also reported higher satisfaction with their lives in general. But how much capacity can we have for other people? Particularly in times like these when everyone is struggling in one way or another, the emotional toll of taking on external stress is high. And, as studies have found, humans do actually have a limit on how much we can mentally accommodate other people in our lives.
On a neurological level, we cannot cope with having too many friends, and the effort of maintaining those friendships can hit particularly hard during the years where we're navigating our careers and personal endeavours. And so, as we get older and take on increased responsibilities and stresses, we naturally become more discerning about just who we have in our lives since we're generally more time and energy-poor anyway.
And on the other end, we're also in the midst of a loneliness epidemic.
According to a recent report by Telstra, Gen Z and millennials are the 'loneliest' generations, with a staggering 54% of Gen Z and 51% of millennials reporting that they regularly feel lonely. 58% admitted that it's not a feeling that they like to openly talk about. The two younger generations were also found most likely to report that their loneliness is managed when feeling included by others. So where are we going wrong?
With life getting in the way of a lot, losing some of the richness of friendships is inevitable and completely fine. But have you considered intentionally capping these friendships? Think about it. In many ways, it can allow you to be more invested in nurturing these bonds, and, unless you're feeling closed off to others, can result in more meaningful relationships. That doesn't mean that introverts are more likely to have better friendships, or even be better friends to others, but just that pouring time and energy into friendships is rewarding and simultaneously taxing. And sometimes we enable ourselves to be better friends when we don't spread ourselves too thin.
Having more than a handful of people close to you doesn't mean you're any less of a friend, just as not having anyone you consider very close to you isn't a sign of failure. We all have our reasons for holding the friendships we do, and navigating friendships as an adult with very little time and energy doesn't come so naturally to everyone. Maybe that's why Oprah stopped doing it.