The old adage “blood is thicker than water” has been attributed to the 15th century British monk and poet John Lydgate of Bury. Clearly, Brother John was working off of outdated research.
A pair of studies from Michigan State University indicates that friendships are so important they even trump family relationships for older adults. They are in fact a major predictor of health and happiness across our entire lifespan.
“Friendships become even more important as we age,” said study author William Chopik. “Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being. So it’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.”
First Chopik reviewed relationship survey data from over 270,000 participants of all ages in nearly 100 countries. His second study analyzed information provided by over 7,400 older adults in the U.S.
The international review affirmed that both family and friend relationships were linked to better health and happiness overall. However, friendships became the more legitimate predictor of health and happiness at advanced ages.
The U.S. study drilled down more deeply into just how our friendships affect us in our later years. Where friendships are a source of stress, survey participants documented more chronic illnesses. In cases where friends were indicated as a sign of support, the participants reported being happier.
“There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults. Summaries of these studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness more and ultimately how long we’ll live, more so than spousal and family relationships,” Chopik said.
What’s the science? It may just come down to the optional nature of the relationships. (There’s an old adage for that, too: “You can choose your friends, but not your family.”) Family will always be family, regardless of how they may treat us, but the friends we still have in our later years are true treasures.
Of course, our culture and history has conditioned us to place more weight upon our family relationships, often to the detriment of friendships. Chopik believes we are making a big mistake.
“Friendships help us stave off loneliness but are often harder to maintain across the lifespan,” he said. “If a friendship has survived the test of time, you know it must be a good one – a person you turn to for help and advice often and a person you wanted in your life.”
The research has been published in Personal Relationships.