eenevski/Shutterstock, ZephyrMedia/ShutterstockThey say you can choose your friends but not your family. Maybe, but it’s clear that good friends come with plenty of health benefits. Now research suggests that your chums may be more important than family relationships when it comes to your health and happiness.
Researchers from Michigan State University carried out two studies published in Personal Relationships that examined how friendships and family impact our physical and mental well-being. They first looked at data from nearly 280,000 people from almost 100 countries worldwide. After comparing people’s friendships and family relationships with their physical and mental health, the team discovered that friendship was linked to higher scores of health and happiness than family relationships. Remarkably, as the respondents aged, the importance of friendships increased.
The second study involved almost 7,500 older adults, and revealed that the quality of friendships had a much bigger influence on health than family relationships. People who reported stressful or strained friendships were much more likely to suffer poor health compared to those who had positive friendships; the impact on health from good or bad family relationships was negligible. (Do you know the nine signs of a toxic friendship?)
“There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults,” William Chopik, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, told Science Daily. “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.”
There are several potential reasons why friendships are crucial to well-being: For one, it’s easier to drop a bad friendship than it is to cut ties with a relative. Even better, friends can also provide social support when things get tough with relatives, such as going through a divorce or when caring for an aged parent. And long-lasting friendships are less likely to be fraught with guilt or obligation than a family relationship.
“Friendships help us stave off loneliness but are often harder to maintain across the lifespan,” explains Chopik. “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.”