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Why Does Having Friends Make Us Happy?

The reasons may be simpler than you think.

Key points

  • Human beings appear to be wired to care about relationships. We’re generally happier when we have people in our lives.
  • Evolutionarily, our ancient ancestors’ desire to group together probably helped protect them, insuring the propagation of the species.
  • Despite the seeming importance of things like shared humor or values, friendships may be associated with happiness for more basic reasons.
Omar Lorez/Unsplash
Source: Omar Lorez/Unsplash

In the 2000 film Cast Away, Tom Hanks played a FedEx employee named Chuck Noland whose cargo plane crashes, leaving him marooned alone on a deserted island. Over the years, loneliness gets the better of him, and he grows so starved for companionship that he starts talking to a volleyball as if it were another human being.

Having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, you probably don’t need me to tell you that loneliness can take a huge toll. During the past 16 months, you may have felt some version of what Noland experienced—the emptiness of feeling isolated from others and the longing to be social. At a deep level, we appear to be wired to care about relationships. Evolutionarily, our ancient ancestors’ desire to group together probably helped improve their chances of survival and the survival of their children, ensuring that they were able to propagate the species. As modern humans, we’ve inherited this emotional need to be with others. We’re generally happier when we have people in our lives.

But, we all know that not all relationships are the same and not everyone thinks about relationships in the same way. This begs the question: What about our relationships leads to greater happiness? Is it our friends’ witty senses of humor? Is it shared interests? It is shared values?

It’s likely that all of these play a role, to some degree. But, according to research, friendships may boost our well-being for far more basic reasons than you think. Here are three of them:

1. Merely being with others matters

That’s right, the research shows that merely having others in our lives is associated with greater happiness. This is often referred to as having a “social network.” In one study, for instance, researchers gathered a sample of more than 200 college students, comparing the happiest to the least happy 10% of participants. Although the investigators found a number of intriguing results, one stood out: Quite simply, the happiest participants spent less time alone than the least happy ones. Being with others, at a very basic level, is itself related to greater well-being.

2. Quantity and quality both matter (but quality matters more)

Although simply being with others may on average be associated with happiness, the details of those relationships also matter. We all know that some people can be toxic or difficult to be around, and nobody is advocating surrounding ourselves with toxic people just to be with others. Most adults have somewhere between three and five friends, a number which seems to be perfectly healthy. But, if you don’t fall into that range, don’t worry. Although studies have shown mild associations between higher numbers of friends and greater psychological well-being, the raw quantity of friendships doesn’t seem to be as important as their quality. People who rate their relationships as more satisfying generally are happier.

Somewhat parallel to live friendships, the quantity and quality of our online relationships also seem to matter. That may be partially because, contrary to popular belief, most online friends are also real-life friends. According to one study that tracked 1,000 university students for two years (pre-COVID), 73% of Facebook friends met at least once per month in real life.

3. Our friends’ happiness matters for our own happiness

In addition to the quality and quantity of friendships, how happy our friends are also seems to matter for our own happiness. In one study, researchers followed almost 5,000 people over a 20-year period. They used something known as “network analysis” to track the way participants were connected to one another. For instance, they were able to determine the degree of separation between people. A person is one degree separated from a friend, two degrees separated from a friend’s friend, and three degrees separated from the friend of a friend’s friend. They found that happiness spreads through social networks even up to three degrees of separation. For instance, if a person is one degree of separation from someone who is happy, that person is about 15% more likely to be happy themselves. That may not sound like a lot, but I’ll take a 15% boost anytime. Such a boost in the probability of being happy also was true for two and three degrees of separation, but the percentages got smaller—about 10% and 6%, respectively. Though the study’s methodology wasn’t able to determine the mechanisms behind these effects, the results are consistent with the idea that happiness among friends is contagious.

As more people become vaccinated against COVID-19, many of us are once again able to venture out of our homes and spend more time with friends and family in person. For a lot of people, it’s a welcome reality after the months of text messaging and Zoom fatigue. Even if most of us never felt quite as desperate as Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, we’ve had a taste of what it’s like not to have others in our lives. So, once we’re vaccinated and less concerned about spreading COVID, let’s go out and spread some happiness to our personal network of friends and family. Heaven knows we need it.

More from David B. Feldman Ph.D.
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