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What Will Your Social Life Be Like in 20 Years?

Research uncovers striking connections between current and future friendships.

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As social animals we have a fundamental need to feel connected to others. Indeed, loneliness can be a devastating psychological condition, hugely damaging to our physical as well as psychological health. (See 10 Surprising Facts about Loneliness.)

But is there a way to predict who might be at risk for becoming lonely later in life?

A new study in the journal Psychology and Aging examined whether the nature of the connections we forge at different stages of adulthood has an impact on our likelihood to become lonely later in life. Specifically, using data collected over a 30-year span, researchers examined how the quantity and quality of the social connections we make in our 20s and 30s are related to emotional and psychological well-being in our 50s.

A 30-Year Study

Cheryl Carmichael, a professor with the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College CUNY, and colleagues used data from people who had participated in a diary study in 1974 and 1980 (when they were 18 and 22 years old, respectively) in which they documented any social interactions that lasted over 10 minutes and rated them on how pleasant or unpleasant the experience was, as well as on how intimate the exchanges felt. Similar data were collected from same participants between 1985 and 1986, when they were 27-to-31 years old.

The researchers then contacted the participants again in 2007, when they were between the ages of 48 and 52, and collected data about their emotional and psychological well-being; the quantity and quality of their current social connections; how big their social networks were; how socially isolated they felt (loneliness); and whether they were depressed.

The results indicated that in our 20s, it is the quantity of our social connections that predict whether we are likely to be lonely in our 50s. The more connections we have, the less likely we are to be lonely and depressed decades later. But once we reach our 30s, it is the quality of our social connections that matters—the more intimate and close our connections are at that stage, the better our emotional well-being is likely to be decades later.

The question is: Why does the function of our social connections shift between our 20s and 30s?

Our 20s mark a developmental stage in our lives in which we're exploring the adult world for the first time independent of our families. As such, we tend to engage in social information seeking, so we can learn as much as we can about the world and gain knowledge about people and relationships that can then allow us to better navigate the relational complexities of modern life in both personal and professional settings.

Once we reach our 30s and we have quenched, at least somewhat, our desire for interpersonal knowledge, our focus shifts. We begin to seek more stable and long-lasting connections, and therefore become more focused on the emotional closeness our connections provide. As a result, the quality of our relationships becomes more important than the quantity.

In fact, having too many social connections in our 30s might even interfere with our ability to increase the emotional closeness and intimacy of our relationships. The study found that people who had an abundance of social connections in their 30s actually fared a little worse in their 50s than those who did not.

We might tend to think of people with thriving social lives as being immune from loneliness—but loneliness is defined purely subjectively. Whether you're lonely depends entirely on whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. Therefore, people who have many friends but lack the deeper intimacy of emotionally close relationships might actually feel extremely lonely despite being surrounded by many friends and acquaintances.

Given the danger loneliness poses to our quality of life as well as our longevity, it is important to take action if you are lonely at any age by becoming informed about the dangers it presents and learning about the steps you can take to alleviate emotional suffering.

Copyright 2015 Guy Winch