A strong network of friends and family has long been seen as a key component of happiness, but a new study suggests friends may be more important than family.
Researchers at Michigan State University also found the importance of friendship on health and happiness grows as people get older.
“Friendships become even more important as we age,” said William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at MSU. “Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being. So it’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.”
To reach their conclusions, the researchers looked at just over 271,000 participants in a health and happiness survey as well as nearly 7,500 participants in a survey about “relationship support” in older adults suffering chronic illness.
In the first group, both family and friendships were influential in overall health and happiness, but in the second group, friendships “became a stronger predictor of health and happiness at advanced ages.”
Furthermore, in the second group, researchers said strained friendships led to increased chronic illness, but with supportive friends, respondents reported being happier.
One reason, according to Chopik, is that relationships are optional in that we can maintain them with people who make us feel good and discard those who don’t. Family, on the other hand, are not normally optional and while often enjoyable, can also involve negative feelings.
“There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults. Summaries of these studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness more and ultimately how long we’ll live, more so than spousal and family relationships,” he said.
“Friendships help us stave off loneliness, but are often harder to maintain across the life span,” he added. “If a friendship has survived the test of time, you know it must be a good one, a person you turn to for help and advice often and a person you wanted in your life.”