Dunbar Numbers, Relationships & Magic

“Humanity will have to extricate itself from these bags created by false moralists, according to whom we taste happiness and then pass judgment on it as if it were a piece of fruit. But I maintain that even for a piece of fruit we can do something to help it taste good. This is even truer of marriage and every other human relationship; these things are not to be tasted or passively accepted; they must be made. A relationship is not like a bit of shade where one if comfortable or uncomfortable depending on the weather and the way the mind is blowing. On the contrary, it is a place of miracles, where the magician makes the rain and the good weather.”

—Emile-Auguste Chartier (Alain), “Happiness” in Alain on Happiness. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

In the main, Alain’s advice is good. We often do not try hard enough to keep the relationships we have. We fail to create new bridges to others when we could. We do not do enough to make our relationships better.

There is a magic in believing in others, being vulnerable and opening ourselves up to the possibilities of creating a relationship. It’s not something to be judged. It is an opportunity to be transformed, and in the transformation, magic and miracles can happen, if we believe in them.

But, magic requires the right environment, and there are limits to miracles. We need the right assistance, props, and an audience that, even if sceptical, wants to be amazed.

Who is our audience? Study after study confirms that most people have no more than:

  • 5 intimate friends
  • 15 close friends
  • 50 friends
  • 150 acquaintances

So, if we want to perform a bit of magic, it might help to be a little selective about the venue and the audience. We need assistance to bring magic to life. Given this small world we all live in, we need to find people that will help us make magic.

Most people want a world filled with magic. It’s easy to find helpers in this world. But, we also need to recognize that some people practice a singular magic.

Hoodoos, psychic vampires, psychopaths, and their kindred spirits have their own magic. It is disruptive to any other kind.

People go through bad periods, and as good friends, we should support them. Sometimes people lose their magic for a time.

But, a few want to drink at the magical well and have a thirst that can never be slaked. They take but rarely give. They wound but cannot find it in themselves to apologize. We all know people that would rather poison the well rather than share a dipper.

Be a generous spirit. Believe in magic but also know that magic isn’t always enough. It can, and does, fail us. If someone doesn’t offer the dipper and doesn’t help create any magic, eventually, we will need to find someone else.


…the hoodoo. There are certain people you meet in life who are like the locomotives that always used to blow up—people who, wherever they go, disaster always ensues. One of my main pieces of advice is: Stay away from hoodoos. Sometimes hoodoos are very affectionate and they like to hug you, and I always burn my shirt right after being touched by a hoodoo.

How do you know a hoodoo when you see one?

First of all, a lot of them frequent areas that are ephemeral. Many waterfront communities are peopled by hoodoos. And they generally have a string of failures behind them, they generally are in need of capital, they generally talk a better game than they play. And they often flatter you and pretend to be your amiable friend before they know you. Hoodoos are very good at what they do. A lot of times they command the center of attention and they try to dazzle you with the trappings of success—which when you look into it you will find is a will o’ the wisp.”

—Kathryn Shultz, “Hoodoos, Hedge Funds, and Alibis: Victor Niederhoffer on Being Wrong.” Slate. June 21, 2010.

The 5:1 Relationship Ratio

The post today on The Attachment Theory of Relationships reminded me of a good piece of advice I’d read in John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, described in short in this article on The Gottman Institute website:

“The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.

That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.”

Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science.” The Gottman Institute. October 4, 2017.

Intuitively, this seems like it probably applies to every relationship we have. If you are not getting five times more positivity than negativity from someone in your life, maybe it’s time to reconsider the relationship?

The Attachment Theory of Relationships

“Touch is the most basic way of connecting with another human being. Taking your partner’s hand when she is nervous or touching his shoulder in the middle of an argument can instantly defuse anxiety and anger.

The world of therapy has been obsessed with maintaining boundaries in recent years. I say our problem is just the opposite—we’re all cut off from each other.

If you watch two people in love, they touch each other all the time. If you watch two people finding their way back into a love relationship, after falling into demon dialogues, they touch each other more, too. They literally reach for each other; it’s a tangible sign of their desire for connection.”

—Sue Johnson, “Hold Me Tight.” Psychology Today. January 2009.

Useful quick overview that made me want to read her book, “Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships.”

Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Money

“…all who want to get rich manage to do so. That scandalizes people who have dreamed of having money, and who do not have any. They looked at the mountain; but it just waited for them. Money, like every other advantage, demands fidelity above all else. Many people imagine that they want money simply because they must. But money eludes thoses who pursue it simply out of need. People who have made their fortune have done so by striving to dominate something.”

—Emile-Auguste Chartier, “The Ambitious,” in Alain on Happiness. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

The Bible puts in more succinctly:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

—Matthew 6:24

And there is the classic Reddit post, regarding winning the lottery. Long story short, winning the lottery will also significantly increase your chances of being a victim of homicide (particularly by a family member), having a drug overdose, going bankrupt, being kidnapped, being convicted of drunk driving, and being a defendant in a civil law suit or in felony criminal proceedings.

All of this suggests that the pursuit of power, fame and money beyond certain minimum thresholds is self-destructive, or at the very least requires hyper-vigilance to the point that it consumes a lot of time and energy. Better to develop Kool-Aid taste and get by with less.

The Personal Isn’t For Mass Consumption

“Divorce is hard. Love is hard. All those things were so personal. They weren’t for mass consumption. The complexity of a life or a marriage is never going to exist in a headline or a tabloid.”

—Meg Ryan interviewed by David Marchese, “Meg Ryan on romantic comedies, celebrity and leaving it all behind: ‘The feeling with Hollywood was mutual.’The New York Times. February 15, 2019.

The parallels of social media making the problems of fame something everyone experiences now is an interesting connection Meg Ryan makes during the course of this interview.