Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Importance of a Friend - Revisited

This past August, when I first started my blog, I made an abstract post in which I described the type of relationship I have with my best friend and implicitly show why this is, without a doubt, one of the greatest things someone can have; and more specifically, how my best friend is probably the most important thing I have. However, in keeping with the recent change in how I express myself on this blog, I think the topic deserves revisiting: what is the importance of a friend?

This is the kind of social circle I'm used to.
Of course, the immediate psychological benefits are obvious -- friends offer social support and opportunity for self-disclosure, which is often an important component in the development of self-concept and is necessary for the healthy psychological development of any human being. I say these things from the perspective of a student studying psychology, but these benefits should be intuitively obvious to anyone who has had a good friend in their lives. There are other potential benefits, however, to having stable friendships.

In 2010, Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Layton conducted a meta-analysis of 148 studies, totaling 308,849 participants, to find the association between social relationships on mortality. The results show that on average, strong social relationships confer a 50% increased risk of livelihood, with the strongest association being with complex social integrations (OR = 1.91, or 91%) and the weakest being binary indicators of residential status (OR = 1.19, or 19%). In general, therefore, strong social relationships have a similar influence on mortality as do other established risk-factors for mortality.

Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but concerning situations that involve risk of mortality, I think the effect sizes of having strong social relationships to any degree are enough to start promoting sociability. Not that having a very close circle of a few friends isn't good for the psychological reasons I mentioned, but in terms of longevity, it just doesn't cut it.

Why do I say this? A study by Cable et al. in 2012 observed 3,169 men and 3,512 women born in Great Britain in 1958 and followed them through their life. They found that at age 45, having a smaller network of friends resulted in poorer psychological well-being by age 50. This same study also suggests that men psychologically benefited from larger kinship connections. Maybe there is something to the "mama's boy." I say that in jest, but these results are significant, as they suggest that the network size was an even better predictor of their psychological well-being at age 50 than their previous psychological state or their socio-demographic factors. These results did not differ significantly between men and women.

A similar study conducted by the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Australia followed 1,477 people at the age of 70 and found that having a larger network of friends was associated with a 22% increase in longevity compared to those who did not have a large network. At the same time, close relationships with children/relatives did not seem to significantly increase longevity.

So what does this suggest? Get out there and be social!

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ResearchBlogging.orgHolt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med DOI: 10.4016/19911.01

Cable et al. (2012). Friends are equally important to men and women, but family matters more for men's well-being. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health DOI: 10.1136/jech-2012-201113  

Giles et al. (2004). Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health DOI: 10.1136/jech.2004.025429


  1. Interesting post, Lex :). I do have some questions though.

    For the study conducted by the Centre for Ageing Studies, did is specify what is considered a "large network of friends" and a "small network of friends"? I opened the study up from your link, and it doesn't go into detail about it. Since you've seen the full study, it probably had it in there. I'm just curious how they went about it because friend size might be subjective (at least to a point).

    My other question might be more of an opinion: from the same study, why do you think close relationships with children/relatives weren't as significant as close relationships with friends in increasing longevity?

    1. Thank you for your comment Mykala, I'd be happy to answer your questions.

      From the Australian study, social network sizes were placed into percentiles (and grouped into thirds of 100 for analysis) based on number of close friends, personal contacts and phone contacts. It is subjective, but in these cases, they categorize not to say "you have a small network," but to say "your network size is X% smaller/larger than another group" in order to quantify a trend.

      My only guess for the lack of a strong correlation between child/relative relationships and longevity is that in old age, perhaps family support doesn't provide a proper outlet for relational support. In other words, if you live in a retirement home, it's easier to relate to other people in that home than your younger family members, if you get what I mean. This is all speculation though, since we don't fully understand how this association between social networks and longevity actually works.

      I hope this was all sufficient.

    2. Yes, thank you, this was more than sufficient. Your answer to my first question makes the study a lot clearer to me now, and for the second one, I hadn't even considered that. I think that's a legitimate speculation, at least.
      From personal experience, I can attest that it's easier to relate to friends around my age than parents who are much older and a sibling that is quite younger :P.

    3. It's also insightful, in these cases, to read the "Discussion" segments of the studies. The authors speculated, or rather tacitly suggest, that perhaps due to the fact that relationships with relatives/children are involuntary, that has a lesser effect.


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