The number of friends we have when we are young may have a significant impact on our emotional health later in life, a new study suggests.
However, as we get older it is the quality of social relationships that benefit our well-being later in life, researchers have found.
Researchers from the University of Rochester in the US found that the quantity of social interactions a person has at the age of 20 and the quality of social relationships that they have at the age of 30 can benefit their well-being later in life.
The 30-year longitudinal study showed that the frequent social interactions that take place at age 20 were beneficial later in life because they help us build a tool set to be drawn on later; they help us to figure out who we are.
“It’s often around this age that we meet people from diverse backgrounds, with opinions and values that are different from our own, and we learn how to best manage those differences,” said lead author Cheryl Carmichael, who conducted the research as a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Rochester.
Surprisingly, Carmichael said, the study showed that having a high number of social interactions at age 30 has no psychosocial benefits later on.
However, 30-year-olds who reported having quality relationships – defined as intimate and satisfying – reported high levels of well-being at midlife.
In fact, meaningful social engagement was beneficial at any age, but more so at age 30 than at age 20.
The researchers also found that socially active 20-year-olds did not necessarily become successful at having quality relationships at age 30, when quality social engagement appears to start having the greatest impact later in life.
Carmichael contacted individuals who, as 20-year-old college students in the 1970s, and again ten years later, participated in the Rochester-Interaction Record (RIR) study.
Of the 222 participants, Carmichael was able to follow up with 133 participants.
At ages 20 and 30, the participants tracked their daily social interactions in diaries. Encounters lasting 10 minutes or more were rated as to how intimate, pleasant, and satisfying each exchange was.
Twenty-years since their last diary entry, Carmichael asked the now 50-year-olds to fill a survey about quality of their social lives and emotional well-being at midlife.
They were asked about loneliness and depression, as well as the quality of their relationships with close friends.
“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 now an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College.
The study is published in the journal Psychology and Aging.