The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Having a Friend and Being a Friend

Those with strong social relationships live longer.

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
- Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) epitaph, written by himself

A meta-analytic literature review by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith, and Bradley Layton (2010) was recently published, summarizing 148 prospective studies with a total of 308,849 research participants. The focus was on social relationships and longevity, and the results were clear and intriguing. Those with stronger social relationships - assessed by both quantitative and qualitative indices - had a 50% increased likelihood of survival. This finding held across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death, and length of follow-up period

So, other people matter, and in this case, mattering shows up in terms of an increased life.

Here is a simple multiple-choice test. What was your first reaction when you read about this finding, which is not only reliable but quite robust?

A. I thought about how many friends I had, and whether I had "enough" friends to make me live longer in a meaningful way.

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B. I though about how many people for whom I was a friend, and whether I had "enough" friends to help other people live longer in a meaningful way.

My immediate answer was A - I admit it - but as I thought further, I realized that B was a pretty good answer as well, and maybe a morally better one to boot. Note to students: Sometimes your first reaction to a test question is not the correct reaction!

Positive psychology can be criticized as much too focused on the individual. Many of the findings of this field are presented to the general public in terms of how they can benefit the individual: i.e., your increased happiness, success, health, and longevity. But as I have previously noted, sometimes doing the right thing does not always benefit the individual. It nonetheless remains the right thing.

In the case of friendship, there is no tradeoff. Many (admittedly not all) friendships are symmetric, so my point here is mainly about how you frame the value of a friendship. Is it all about you, or is it also about the other person? In this case, according to the meta-analysis, the answer is both.

So what is the so what? Maybe we should think about the benefits of friendship, not for us, but for others. Who in our circle might most benefit from having a friend? Probably not those who are already popular. When was the last time you (or I) set out to befriend a person who was a bit isolated, a bit awkward, or a bit difficult? Maybe you are like me, and the answer would be seldom or never.

I intend to change that.

And given that I myself (and you too?) may be a bit isolated, a bit awkward, and a bit difficult, I hope others heed this moral message, based on the data, and do the right thing!

We're all in this together, dear readers.

Reference

Holt-Lunstad J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. doi:10.1371.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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