There are times when we all want to shut ourselves off from the world and be alone. Of course, in the long run, no man (or woman) is an island. We all naturally crave social, romantic, and familial connections, despite the occasional desire to be left alone.
So, it’s pretty much universally agreed upon that a close circle of friends and a loving family are two essential ingredients toward a fulfilling, content life.
Now, though, a new study from Southern Methodist University says that spending time with one of those groups usually leads to more feelings of happiness than the other.
All in all, researchers at SMU found that people report feeling happier and higher levels of well-being while spending time with friends in comparison to days spent with either a romantic partner or one’s children. Among those three distinct groups of people in our lives (friends, romantic partners, children), studied participants reported feeling the lowest levels of happiness while around their significant other.
At first consideration, this study doesn’t seem to reflect very nicely on everyone’s partners and children. But, lead study author Nathan Hudson, a professor of psychology at SMU, says that it’s important to consider the activities we usually engage in with friends in comparison to usual family time. Whenever we meet with our friends, it’s usually a recreational experience; restaurants, bars, shopping, etc. Conversely, a great deal of the time one spends at home with their family consists of less glamorous endeavors like household chores.
“Our study suggests that this doesn’t have to do with the fundamental nature of kith versus kin relationships,” he explains in a university release. “When we statistically controlled for activities, the ‘mere presence’ of children, romantic partners, and friends predicted similar levels of happiness. Thus, this paper provides an optimistic view of family and suggests that people genuinely enjoy their romantic partners and children.”
It isn’t as simple as friends being more conducive to happiness than family. The vast majority of parents will tell you that their family brings them more joy than anything else in their life. However, being a good parent and life partner isn’t always necessarily fun. There are inevitably going to be tough times for any family. When it comes to hanging with friends, on the other hand, most of that time is spent in a more relaxed and care-free state.
The study’s authors gathered over 400 people for this research project. Each person was asked to recall past experiences with both friends and family. For every memory, participants were told to write down what activity they had engaged in with their friend or family member, and rate what emotions they felt (happiness, satisfaction, a sense of meaning, etc). Participants also had to rate the strength and frequency of each reported emotion on a scale of 0 to 6.
Generally, most people reported relaxing, eating, or socializing often with both their romantic partner and their friends. The main difference between those two categories was that most people also do a whole lot of cleaning and household chores with their significant other.
Statistically speaking, 65% of recalled friend experiences involved socializing, but only 28% of recalled partner memories included socializing as well.
Most participants’ memories of time spent with their children, however, included not-so-fun activities like cleaning or housework. That being said, participants generally said they associate caring for their children with happy feelings and positive memories.
There’s a complex and nuanced relationship at play here. As professor Hudson mentioned earlier, if we’re talking about simply being in the presence of other people, reported levels of happiness and wellbeing were generally the same across partners, friends, and children. Friends enjoy an advantage, though, once usual activities are included in the discussion.
In summation, the study’s authors hope their findings encourage others to carve out more recreational family time. Cleaning, chores, and the occasional argument are bound to happen when maintaining a home and family, but that doesn’t mean one’s family can’t be some of their best friends as well.
“It’s important to create opportunities for positive experiences with romantic partners and children – and to really mentally savor those positive times. In contrast, family relationships that involve nothing but chores, housework, and childcare likely won’t predict a lot of happiness,” professor Hudson concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.