“A friend is a treasure” says a popular proverb, and research has finally declared that it is true: engaging and investing in good relationship increase our psychological and physical well-being. People embedded in good relationships show, in general, higher levels of happiness, healthier behaviour, a lower incidence of chronic illnesses and lower mortality. It seems, moreover, that the enhancing effects of investing in close relationships are present throughout the lifespan and are of particular importance for later life, when physical health begins to decline. One possible explanation for this may be found in the positive mechanisms - sense of control, purpose in life and source of self-esteem - that good networks provide.
However, there is still a debate about which kind of relationship is most important for our health and well-being. There is a large body of research that has concentrated on the role of family relationships (spouse, partner or other immediate family members).Until a few years ago, it was widely thought that that marriage had a strong “protective effect”, promoting adult health and wellbeing (e.g. Carr and Springer 2010). People who were married were believed to have overall better health, they tended to live longer and they had less risk of being depressed. Marriage usually brings financial advantages, and these may lead to healthier living conditions and higher-quality health care. The marital relationship is also seen as a source of social support and affection which may reduce loneliness and depressive feelings, and hence, lead to better mental health. More recent findings (e.g. Kalmijn 2017), however, cast doubt on the protective value of marriage per se, by highlighting the fact that marriage (or, more generally, having a partner) may also be a source of stress, and so have a negative effect on well-being. In other words, we have to take into consideration the quality of marital relationships (and more generally, family interactions) when we try to connect them health and well-being outcomes.
This emphasis on the quality of relationships has led to an increasing focus on relationships with friends as researchers (e.g. Giles and colleagues, 2005) have started not only to explore their role in maintaining health and well-being, but also to compare it with that of spouse or other family members. The fact that friendship relations, unlike some family relations, are voluntary and depend on choice suggests that the link between friendship and well-being may be quite close. After all, these are the people we choose to have around us, and presumably we think that we benefit from the association. Because they are optional, friendships necessarily involve more effort to maintain, but if a friend decides to be on our side over time, this usually means that our relation with him/her is very deep and strong!
An additional proof of the importance of friendship in older life derives from two recent American studies, both conducted by William Chopik (2017). The first study examined the association between ‘close’ relationships, and health and happiness across the lifespan. He found that both family and friendship relationships are associated with higher happiness and better health. However, friendships appeared to be stronger predictor of health and wellbeing at advanced ages. In the second study, the effects of friendships on health and happiness were examined in old individuals. It was found that strain from friendships was the only significant predictor of chronic illnesses over time.
In conclusion, it seems that supportive family members are very important for our older ages, but a good friend is even more crucial! In a nutshell, having good relationships and an active social life keep our brain active and our body healthier. In this way, they increase our chances to age successfully!
 Carr, D. and K. W. Springer. (2010). Advances in Families and Health Research in the 21st Century. Journal of Marriage and Family 72(3):743-61.
 Kalmijn, M. (2017). The Ambiguous Link between Marriage and Health: A Dynamic Reanalysis of Loss and Gain Effects. Social Forces, 95 (4): 1607-1636.
 Giles, L. C., Glonek, G. F. V., Luszcz, M. A., & Andrews, G. R. (2005). Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: The Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59(7), 574–579.?
 Chopik, W. (2017). Associations among relational values, support, health, and well-being across the adult lifespan. Personal Relationships, 24:408–422.
About the Author
Dr Sara Zella is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Sara joined the Institute in 2016 to work with Professor Sarah Harper on the research project “The impact of different work/care life courses on women’s wellbeing and quality of life in early retirement and the welfare regimes which help shape this”.
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