Your Friends Might Be More Important to Your Health Than Your Family

Keep your family close but your friends closer?

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of family, but friends may be more important to your overall well-being than your closest kin — especially as you get older, according to a new study published in the journal Personal Relationships.

William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, researched the comparative importance of friendships and familial relationships on our health and happiness throughout our lives.

Chopik analyzed two data sets: A self-reported survey of 271,053 people from nearly 100 countries, and a separate survey about chronic illness and “relationship support/strain” of 7,481 older adults in the U.S. He found that while both friend and familial relationships are important to our well-being when we’re young, as we get older friendships become “a stronger predictor of health and happiness,” according to the press release.

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The second survey Chopik analyzed put into perspective how strongly our friendships can affect our health: When friends were a source of strain, “participants reported more chronic illnesses,” but when “friends were the source of support, participants were happier,” according to the press release.

Chopik says that the ability to choose and discard friends whenever we want may have something to do his findings. If we can drop and pick up new friendships over the course of our lives, it stands to reason that by the time we’ve reached old age, only the most important ones remain. Friendships provide other benefits, too, like support for people who don’t “lean on their family in times of need.” And though family relationships can still boost our health, they sometimes involve “serious, negative and monotonous interactions,” the press release explains.

“Friendships help us stave off loneliness but are often harder to maintain across the lifespan,” Chopik said in the press release. This is especially true as we age and our community dwindles. But the good news is that reaping the health benefits of friendship is all about quality, not quantity. Science backs this up: A 75-year long Harvard study found that having solid and close relationships, even just a few, can keep us happy and healthy.

“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 said.

Read the press release here.