Your Happiness: How Do Friends Stack Up Against Family?

The results of a recent study may surprise you.

Posted Sep 24, 2020

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash
Are friendships more important for happiness than family?
Source: Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

Nothing is more important than our families to many of us, but a new study sought to put a scientific light on where friends fit into the picture.

Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University and his colleagues asked more than 400 study participants to think back on times spent with their friends or family and rate whether those experiences left them feeling certain ways, such as happy, satisfied and with a sense of meaning. Each was rated from 0 (almost never) to 6 (almost always).

That information and other responses about how study participants felt at different times allowed the researchers to estimate their levels of happiness with their friends and family. The research showed that people report higher levels of well-being while hanging with their friends than they do with their romantic partner or children. In fact, being around romantic partners predicted the least amount of happiness among the participants, according to the research paper, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

According to Hudson, the finding has more to do with the activity than the person it is shared with. That's because people tend to spend more of their time doing enjoyable activities with friends than they do with family members, who find themselves together doing unpleasant tasks like chores or caretaking duties. He concluded in a news release that, "When we statistically controlled for activities, the 'mere presence' of children, romantic partners and friends predicted similar levels of happiness. Thus, this paper provides an optimistic view of family and suggests that people genuinely enjoy their romantic partners and children."

The activities people most frequently perform while they're with their romantic partners include socializing, relaxing and eating. People tend to do similar activities when they are with their friends, too. They just do a lot more of these enjoyable tasks while hanging with their friends and a lot less work, the study found. For instance, 65% of experiences with friends involved socializing, but only 28% of the time shared with partners. Spending time with their children also meant more time doing things such as housework and commuting.

There's a lesson here, Hudson said. "It's important to create opportunities for positive experiences with romantic partners and children—and to really mentally savor those positive times. In contrast, family relationships that involve nothing but chores, housework and childcare likely won't predict a lot of happiness." These findings also point to the importance of life balance: friendships, family time, work, self-care and play.

References

Nathan W. Hudson, N.W., et al. (2020). Are we happier with others? An investigation of the links between spending time with others and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119 (3): 672 DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000290