Researchers find having more friends is healthy, but having closer friends is even better

Young folks who have a ton of friends on the ‘gram look like they’re having the time of their lives. But can that compete with their parents’ social lives – a small, curated group of friends that meets face-to-face? Not at all, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

When it comes to older adults over 60, it’s quality over quantity when it comes to social relationships boosting well-being – and that way of living may be beneficial to people well under 45 as well.

“The research shows that older adults’ smaller networks didn’t undermine social satisfaction and well-being, said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, PhD, of the University of Leeds and lead author of the study, in a release. “In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults.”

The research was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

The study

Bruine de Bruin and her co-authors analyzed data from two online surveys conducted by RAND Corp.’s American Life Panel, a nationally representative survey of 6,000 adults recruited through approaches such as random digital dialing and address-based sampling and then regularly interviewed over the internet.

In first survey, 496 study participants determined the importance of the number of people from their different social networks (friends, family, neighbors), as well as secondary ones (coworkers, school, or friends from childhood, or people who regularly provided them a service). All of these people were required to have contact with them in the last six months. In the second survey, 298, participants also self-reported their feelings of well-being in the last 30 days and answered questions about mental and physical health.

Findings

It was discovered that older adults had smaller social networkers than their younger counterparts, reported significantly better well-being than the younger participants (people under 30).

For all age groups, having close friends was important.  Young or old, the more close friends participants had, the more social satisfaction and greater overall well-being they reported.

Older adults had smaller number of close friends than young adults, although the number was probably unrelated to age.

Younger adults had large social networks. It should be noted, however, that their contacts were made up mostly of secondary, periphery others – perhaps eased by the use of social media. They had few close friends.

Loneliness has been called an epidemic in the US, most notably by Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute Referring to a recent 2018 large-scale survey from health care provider Cigna, Brooks wrote nearly half of Americans say they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well.

Bruine de Bruin thinks that loneliness can be assuaged by reaching out to someone you already know.

“Lonelieness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” she said. “It’s often the younger adults who admit to having negative perceptions of their friends. Loneliness occurs in people of all ages. If you feel lonely, it may be more helpful to make a positive connection with a friend than to try and seek out new people to meet.”