Some people may have hundreds of friends, while others may have only one or two close friends. There really is no perfect number of friends, though a handful of close friends is probably the average. Interestingly, while Internet social networks may make us feel that we know hundreds of people, research is showing that we feel more isolated than ever before. A 2006 study published in American Sociological Review found that people in the U.S. had fewer friends than they'd had 20 years prior. In 1985, the average American claimed to have three close confidants (which could have included spouses or family members, in addition to friends), but by 2004, the average American had only two close confidants. One in four people reported having no one to talk to at all.
A lack of friends, or a dwindling of the number of them, can certainly be unhealthy, not to mention lonely. According to a University of Chicago study, up to 20 percent of us are unhappy at any given moment due to social isolation [source: Seligman]. Evidently, isolation and loneliness also can affect our physical health. One study found that laboratory mice that were put into isolation were more likely to develop cancerous tumors [source: University of Chicago Medical Center]. Among humans, loneliness has been found to cause stress, which is known to be a risk factor for heart disease and other conditions.
The University of Chicago study also showed that lonely subjects displayed significantly less activity in the ventral striatum section of their brains than did people who said they had strong social networks. The ventral striatum is part of the brain's reward center and is activated by such rewards as food and love. It's also connected with learning. Subjects in the study who were not lonely also displayed greater activity in the temporoparietal junction, which is the section of the brain that's associated with empathy [source: University of Chicago Medical Center].
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