Having a wide circle of friends is equally important to men and women, according to new research.
A network of relatives also is important — but only for men, according to a study of more than 6,500 Britons born in 1958.
The researchers base their findings on information collected from participants in the National Child Development Study (NCDS), when they were ages 42, 45 and 50.
At the age of 42, they completed a questionnaire, called the Malaise Inventory, to gauge their psychological well-being and provide details of their partnership and job status, as well as the age at which they left full-time education. Most report they left school at the age of 16, had a partner, and were in pretty good psychological health.
At the age of 45, they were asked to state how many friends and relatives they met up with once a month or more.
One in seven said they had no contacts with relatives outside their immediate household and around one in 10 said they had no friends, according to the researchers. Four out of 10 men and around one in three women said they had more than six friends whom they saw regularly.
Employment had no bearing on the size of social networks, but education did, the researchers note.
Men who left full-time education between the ages of 17 and 19 were 45 percent less likely to have a larger kinship network, while those staying on until 20 or beyond were 60 percent less likely to do so. The comparable figures for women were 17 percent and 60 percent.
Staying on in full-time education after 16 also reduced the size of men’s friendship network, but it increased women’s — by 38 percent if they left between 17 and 19, and by 74 percent if they left after the age of 20.
Having a partner also was associated with a larger kinship network, according to the study. Being single reduced that probability by 31 percent for men and by 26 percent for women. But it had no impact on friendship networks, the researchers noted.
When participants’ psychological well-being was assessed at the age of 50, the results showed a significant association between the number of friends and psychological wellbeing, the impact of which was greater for women.
Compared with those with 10 or more regular contacts, smaller networks of friends at the age of 45 were associated with significantly lower levels of psychological well-being for both sexes.
These findings were consistent whether they had a partner or a job or had had a mental health issue in the past.
Psychological well-being also was influenced by the size of kinship networks, although to a lesser extent than friendship — but only for men, the study found.
Psychological well-being was especially poor among those with no relatives or friends: Among men this was 2.3 points lower if they had no relatives and 2.6 points lower if they had no friends compared with those with 10 or more regular social contacts.
For women, lack of friends had an even greater impact on well-being. This was 4 points lower if they had no friends. But a lack of relatives had no emotional impact.
The study was published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Source: BMJ-British Medical Journal