“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light”
So said the redoubtable Helen Keller. And it seems she was spot-on, since a new study highlights that friends are a more important source of support than family to us – especially when the going gets tough.
In the survey of 280,000 people, researchers from Michigan State University found that friendships become increasingly valuable to our health and happiness as we progress through our lives.
Not only that, but they’re more influential to our well-being than family, possible because they are optional – so we get to edit out the friendships that don’t work for us over time, leaving only those that are the most valuable.
The team analysed two sets of far-reaching data. The first looked at survey information about relationships and self-rated health and happiness from 271,053 participants of all ages from nearly 100 countries. It found friendships were especially vital to health and happiness at an advanced age.
The second study examined responses about relationship support/strain and chronic illness from 7,481 older adults in the United States. When friendships were a source of strain, participants reported more chronic illnesses. When friendships were thriving, they felt better overall.
“Friendships become even more important as we age,” says William Chopik, the assistant professor of psychology leading the study.
“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.”
Chopik says the way we choose our friends over a lifetime means that – if we make wise decisions – we’re left with the people who support us the most (having discarded the rest).
These individuals provide key support for those who don’t have spouses, who’ve experienced bereavement or who simply don’t turn to their family in times of need.
Read more: How to navigate the politics of friendship
While friendships are typically associated with moments of relief, families can also be the root of more serious, monotonous or negative interactions.
“There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults,” says Chopik. “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.
“Friendships help us stave off loneliness but are often harder to maintain across the lifespan,” he adds. “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.”