What Matters More? Size or Quality of Your Social Network

In our 20s quantity of friends trumps quality, in our 30s quality matters more.

Posted Jul 24, 2015

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

How large is your social network? If you gauged the size of your social network by the number of friends you have on Facebook, how many of these people are truly friends?

It's been well established that social connectivity is good for someone's physical and psychological well-being. But is it more important to have a large quantity of friends or to have high quality relationships? 

Personally, as I get older, having a few very close friends who I connect with wholeheartedly is much more rewarding than having a massive sea of acquaintances. What matters more to you, the size or quality of your social network?

A new study on the benefits of social connections found that the importance of quantity vs. quality evolves as we mature. In our 20s, it appears that having an extensive number of social interactions is more important for well-being. As we age, the quality of social relationships becomes more strongly associated with well-being.

The July 2015 study, "In Your 20s It’s Quantity, in Your 30s It’s Quality: The Prognostic Value of Social Activity Across 30 Years of Adulthood," was published in Psychology and Aging.

After reviewing three decades worth of data, the researchers concluded that having a large quantity of social interactions at age 20 was an important stepping stone for building the social skillset needed to form meaningful, significant, and intimate connections that prove to be more valuable by age 30. 

Social Connectivity Is a Keystone of Well-Being at Any Age

Having close-knit human bonds promotes health and well-being throughout your lifespan. In fact, I believe that social connection is the most important lifestyle factor for maintaining your health, happiness, and longevity at any age. 

In general, someone with limited or poor quality social connections is at a higher risk of early mortality. Lead author, Cheryl Carmichael, who conducted the research as a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Rochester said in press release, "Having few social connections is equivalent to tobacco use, and it's higher than for those who drink excessive amounts of alcohol, or who suffer from obesity."

Pixgood/Labeled for Reuse
Source: Pixgood/Labeled for Reuse

For this study, Carmichael contacted individuals who had participated in the Rochester-Interaction Record (RIR) study as 20-year old college students in the 1970s, and again ten years later.

Carmichael et al found that simply having a large quantity of social connections at age 30 was of little psychosocial benefit by age 50. Psychosocial outcomes include: social integration, friendship quality, loneliness, depression, and psychological well-being.

The researchers found that 30 year olds who reported having quality relationships—which were defined as intimate and satisfying—reported high levels of well-being at midlife. Meaningful social engagement was found to be beneficial at any age, but more so at age 30 than at age 20.

Conclusion: Healthy Social Relationships Keep Us Alive and Well

The results of this study show that the quantity of social interactions at age 20, and the quality of social interactions at age 30 predict better midlife psychosocial outcomes. 

"Considering everything else that goes on in life over those 30 years—marriage, raising a family, and building a career—it is extraordinary that there appears to be a relationship between the kinds of interactions college students and young adults have and their emotional health later in life," said Carmichael, who is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College.

"It would be interesting to see if beneficial social activity during college years and early on in adulthood continues to have an effect, in terms of longevity, mortality, and other specific health outcomes as these participants get older," Carmichael concluded. "I would absolutely love to keep following these people." I'll keep my antennae up for any future research on these findings from Cheryl Carmichael. Stay tuned!

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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