A smaller number of quality face-to-face relationships — as opposed to numerous online contacts —boosts well-being among people of all ages, and may be as important to people under age 45 as they are to those over age 60, according to a new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
In the study, researchers wanted to know whether younger adults who tend to cultivate numerous connections with friends, families and acquaintances through online social networks are any happier than older adults who have smaller circles of face-to-face relationships.
They found that only the reported number of close friends was associated with social satisfaction and well-being across the adult life span. The relationship between the number of close friends and well-being held, even after accounting for the number of family members, neighbors and peripheral others, which was not additionally associated with well-being.
“Stereotypes of aging tend to paint older adults in many cultures as sad and lonely,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Ph.D., of the University of Leeds and lead author of the study.
“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.”
The researchers analyzed data from two online surveys conducted by RAND Corp.’s American Life Panel, a nationally representative survey of adults recruited through a variety of approaches.
Participants reported the number of people from different social networks (e.g., friends, family, neighbors) and peripheral others (e.g., coworkers, school or childhood relations, people who provide a service) with whom they had “regular contact in the past six months.” Contact included face-to-face, by phone or email or on the internet. Participants also rated feelings of well-being over the previous 30 days.
Researchers found that older adults had smaller social networks than younger adults, but the number of close friends was unrelated to age. Younger adults had large social networks consisting of mostly peripheral others, perhaps because online social media networking sites have facilitated the maintenance of increasingly large and impersonal social networks, according to the authors.
The relationship of the reported number of close friends with greater social satisfaction and well-being did not vary with age, suggesting the importance of close friendships across the lifespan.
This is consistent with observed patterns among Facebook users who reported greater well-being if they perceived more actual friends on their online social networks, according to Bruine de Bruin.
Some policymakers seem to be increasingly interested in improving well-being in older adults by expanding their social networks to combat loneliness, according to Bruine de Bruin.
“Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” she said. “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.”