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Adult friendships: why quality, not quantity, is the key to relationships as you get older

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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A new study has revealed why investing in your strongest relationships pays off over time.

Many people will know that feeling of two friends slowly drifting apart all too well. It’s one of the sad realities of getting older, as lives that were once so enmeshed become disentangled.

But a new study has suggested that we shouldn’t be disheartened over a shrinking social network as we get older. In fact, when it comes to adult friendship and maintaining good relationships over the years, it’s a question of quality, not quantity.

The research, undertaken by the University of Leeds and comprising more than 6,000 test participants in the US, examined the type and closeness of friendships in different age groups, cross-referencing that data with information on participant’s overall wellbeing and mental health

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According to the study, those in the older age groups had the smallest social networks. This, however, did not impact their overall wellbeing. In fact, the older study participants were often happier than the younger ones, who had larger networks of relationships. 

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Participants were happiest when they had the highest number of close friends, even if it meant that their wider social network was reduced. What this suggests, according to the researchers, is that the size of your social network itself doesn’t matter. When it comes to your wellbeing, it’s about the quality of your friendships, not the quantity. 

This bears out in the rest of the study’s findings, which also looked at whether having a higher number of people in your life – whether they be family members, neighbours or “peripheral others” and acquaintances – could make you a happier person.

The reasoning behind this is simple: we live in a lonely world and people in big cities can find themselves isolated from human connection. Maybe the solution to this is widening your network? The study would disagree. The research revealed that that number of people in a person’s life, even the number of acquaintances, doesn’t make a remarkable difference on that that person’s wellbeing. The thing that moves the needle is strong, close friendships.

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Knowing this doesn’t make it easier to maintain your close friendships. In the US, the majority of adults say that they have between two and five people they would term close friends, and that even with those close friendships one in five Americans regularly feel lonely. But, according to this research, close friendship will help mitigate some of that loneliness, and will help boost your overall wellbeing. Keeping those friendships close, though, will take time and effort, it’s something you’ll likely have to work at for the rest of your life.

But it should serve as a reminder to stop pouring your energy into low value relationships with those people you might think of as acquaintances or, to use the study’s slightly savage parlance, “peripheral others”.

It’s your high quality, close friendships that are going to make you the happiest. So make sure to hold them close. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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