This new study looks at why friendships might be more important than family ties as we age

As the old adage goes, blood is thicker than water. But science tells a slightly more complicated story: A new study shows that friendships may be more important than family ties as we age. Research published in the journal Personal Relationships found that having close friendships in old age is a stronger predictor of health than close family connections. The first part of the study examined over 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries, and found that both family and friend relationships were associated with overall happiness and better health.

The links shifted among older individuals — participants who reported strong friendships continued to have better health and happiness, while family relationships no longer had the same impact.


“I went into the research sort of agnostic to the role of friendship,” says author William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “But the really surprising thing was that, in a lot of ways, relationships with friends had a similar effect as those with family — and in others, they surpassed them.”

Next, Chopik analyzed 7,500 older individuals in America. Unsurprisingly, he found that it wasn’t simply “having friends” that mattered — the quality of the friendships was crucial to sustained health and happiness.

Participants whose friends caused them stress reported higher rates of chronic illnesses, while the opposite was true for people who described their friends as a source of support.

Chopik says that, because we can pick our friends, none of these findings are a surprise. He also notes that prior studies have found that people enjoy their time with friends more than family time — it tends to be more leisurely, while family obligations can be monotonous.


Another benefit of older friendships is that they’ve stood the test of time, so the connection shared between pals is strong.

“You have kept those people around because they have made you happy, or at least contributed to your wellbeing in some way,” says Chopik. “Across our lives, we let the more superficial friendships fade, and we’re left with the really influential ones.”

Of course, this certainly doesn’t mean our families don’t influence our health and happiness. Many people share close friendships with their siblings, children, spouses, and extended family members — and that has an impact, too. Chopik’s overall conclusion is that the more supportive, positive relationships we have, the healthier we’ll be in our old age.

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