For older adults, It’s the quality of friendships, not quantity, that improves well-being

LEEDS, England — Everyone knows that having friends boosts well-being. In fact previous research has even suggested that having numerous friends reduces the risk of medical conditions like heart disease. However, a new study finds that not all friendships are created equal. Researchers from the University of Leeds conclude that well-being is more closely related to how people feel about their friends than their overall number of friends.

The study sought to compare the friendships and social circles of younger and older adults. Since younger adults are more likely to connect with friends, family members, and acquaintances using online social networks, they tend to have contact with a wider circle of friends. Surely all of those online friends mean that younger people are happier than older adults, right? Not so fast. While older adults may have generally fewer friends, they also tend to be closer with those friends and interact with them on a face-to-face basis more frequently.

According to researchers, when it comes to friendship-induced feelings of well-being, that makes all the difference.

“Stereotypes of aging tend to paint older adults in many cultures as sad and lonely,” says lead author Dr. Wändi Bruine de Bruin in a release by the Americans Psychological Association. “But the research shows that older adults’ smaller networks didn’t undermine social satisfaction and well-being. In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults.”

Dr. Bruine de Bruin and her team used data from two nationally representative online surveys of about 500 adults. The study participants were asked to tally the amount of people from various areas of their lives (friends, family, co-workers, etc.) with whom they had “regular contact in the past six months.” The researchers considered “contact” to be face-to-face interaction, phone or email correspondence, or other online communications. Participants also rated their feelings of well-being over the past 30 days.

According to the survey results, older adults had fewer friends on average than younger adults, but the number of acquaintances participants called “close friends” wasn’t related to age. Younger adults did, however, report more general acquaintances because of social media networking sites. These sites, like Facebook, facilitate larger and more impersonal friend groups, the researchers theorize.

Only the reported number of close friendships was found to be significantly associated with social satisfaction and well-being. This finding even stayed consistent after accounting for the number of family members, neighbors, or acquaintances each participant reported.

This positive association between close friends and well-being didn’t change in different age groups, suggesting that close friendships are important to overall well-being and social satisfaction throughout one’s life.

“Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” Dr. Bruine de Bruin says. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

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