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How friendship affects well-being in each decade of life
The psychological well-being of people in their fifties is tied to how many social interactions they had at 20 and the quality of their friendships at 30, according to new research. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Eighteen months ago, Chad Every moved from Ohio to St. Petersburg, Florida. He had a new job, apartment and bicycle, but one important ingredient of a good life was missing: friends.

Every was content at first to spend time reading and relaxing alone, but the self-proclaimed extrovert knew he'd eventually need pals for impromptu trips to coffee shops, movie theaters and concerts.

"I finally reached a point when I knew I needed to put myself out there. A (vinyl) record fair was happening by my house, so I literally went with the hope of finding a friend," said Every, 26.

Every's search for new connections was a bit awkward, but admitting defeat would have damaged more than his social calendar. Recent research on the mental health benefits of friendship showed spending time with friends and building meaningful relationships in your twenties and thirties has a positive influence on well-being for decades to come.

The study, published earlier this year in Psychology and Aging (paywall), linked people's social and psychological outcomes at age 50 to how much of a social butterfly they were at age 20 and the quality of their friendships at age 30. It highlighted the importance of friend-making (and keeping) at all stages of life, a process that's celebrated on International Friendship Day, marked on the first Sunday in August.

Psychologists and others who study friendships said the findings illustrate how people's social needs change as they age, noting that friend-seekers should be proactive about making social connections that bring meaning to their lives.

"Friendships don't just happen," said Shasta Nelson, CEO of, a women's friendship matching site. "We have to be as intentional about this as we are about healthy eating and exercise."

Friendship and aging

In the study, the social lives of more than 100 students from the University of Rochester were tracked over 30 years. Researchers concluded that individuals with a high quantity of social activities at age 20 and high quality friendships at age 30 were found to have better psychological outcomes at age 50 than their less friendly peers.

These outcomes were measured with questions about loneliness, depression and positive emotions like self-acceptance and a sense of purpose.

Cheryl Carmichael, assistant professor of psychology at CUNY's Brooklyn College and Graduate Center and the study's lead author, said the findings illustrate how an emotionally healthy person's social connections evolve over time.

In our twenties, we need to interact with many different people in order to sharpen our ability to navigate social situations, she said. But by 30, "our social goals focus on emotional closeness."

The study tracked quantity using all of the participant's daily social encounters, including work meetings, college classes and get-togethers with friends.

Social well-being at 20 "is not about going out and partying all the time. That's not the quantity that builds (social) skills," Carmichael said. Instead, people's busy social schedules during their twenties should help them learn how to be a high-quality friend to the people they'll be close to in the coming decades.

Capitalizing on connections

Carmichael doesn't like to think of her research as a guidebook to using friendships to boost well-being, but she acknowledged that it offers a snapshot of a healthy evolution from being a socially active young adult to someone who appreciates and nurtures close friendships.

"We're observing patterns. It's not meant to be a directive," she said. "However, it does suggest that people who are doing this seem to benefit from it."

It might feel unnatural to question how your friendships are affecting your well-being, but the process can ensure your social needs are being met, said Andrea Bonior, adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of "The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing and Keeping Up with Your Friends."

"We allow ourselves to analyze romantic relationships, but with friendships we often accept the status quo," she said, noting people should be strategic with their social connections as they age, building supportive relationships and transitioning away from the more casual acquaintances that characterize most people's twenties.

However, focusing on friendship quality in your thirties and beyond doesn't mean you should stop making new connections, Nelson noted.

"We need to be making new friends throughout our entire life," Nelson said. "When you're in your thirties or forties and craving a meaningful interaction, you sometimes forget you can't just meet someone and go straight to that. You have to be open and socialize in order to build a few of those (deep) friendships."

Finding meaningful friendships

At the record fair, Every was a man on a mission. He saw a guy wearing a pin for "Me Without You," a little-known band Every enjoys, and headed straight for him.

"I made a bee line to him, like a guy makes a bee line to a pretty girl at a bar," he said. "We talked, exchanged numbers and he gradually became my best friend."

The process sounds simple when it's summarized in a few sentences, but putting yourself out there to meet new people can be nerve-wracking, Bonior said.

She suggested people in the market for new friends attend events and activities they will enjoy regardless of who they meet, like Every did with the record fair.

Then, friend-seekers should make an effort to chat with others, building a casual connection with people that can be maintained over meetings at weekly exercise classes or church events.

And finally, someone has to be bold and suggest a friend date like a lunch, Bonior noted.

"You have to stick your neck out" to move from acquaintance to friend, she said.

Throughout the process, it's important to keep an open mind, Nelson said.

"Research shows we're not good predictors of who we will bond with," she said. "I would argue we should move forward and allow a friendship to develop as long as there are no red flags. Don't judge people based on what you think you want in a best friend."

The bottom line is that it's important to take friendship seriously, Bonior said.

"You should be serious about pursuing friendships" and ensuring the ones you already have are going well, she added. "Friendship isn't a luxury. It really is a health issue."

After many months of enjoying his friendship with his record-fair friend, Every was heartbroken to learn he and his wife were moving away. However, Every's experience helped him realize all hope was not lost.

"Brian is irreplaceable. Best friends always are," he said. "But another cool dude is out there. I just need to find him."
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