Well-Being Mental Health

Why having a few friends is better than many

Photo of woman laughing in circle of friends

Story at a glance

  • An astonishing 3 in 4 Americans report feeling lonely.
  • The number of meaningful friendships you have is most important for social well-being regardless of age, research shows.
  • Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have and more to do with how you feel about your friends, the study author says.

Older adults are often more selective than younger adults when picking their social media connections. Their smaller social circles have a higher proportion of meaningful connections, and those are the relationships that support a feeling of social well-being, according to new research from Psychology and Aging.

“Stereotypes of aging tend to paint older adults in many cultures as sad and lonely,” Wändi Bruine de Bruin, PhD, of the University of Leeds and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “But the research shows that older adults’ smaller networks didn’t undermine social satisfaction and well-being. In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults.”

The research included a survey that asked adults to estimate the size of their social networks, grouped as close friends, family, neighbors, and “others” or “peripheral connections” — those Facebook friends from high school whose selfies pop up in your newsfeed now and then. The researchers found that people under 30 reported the largest social networks, with an average of more thaan 600 connections (the vast majority being “others”) while all other age groups were around or below 200 connections, with people older than 60 having less than 100 connections.

But the total size of a social network seems to be unrelated to happiness. Instead, it’s the number of close connections that matters, regardless of age.

Research last year showed that 3 in 4 Americans feel lonely, leading some to call it an epidemic in America. Dr. Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience with the University of California, San Diego, told USNews that a person’s late 20s, mid-50s and late 80s are the times when they’re most likely to feel isolated.

“Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” Bruine de Bruin said. “It’s often the younger adults who admit to having negative perceptions of their friends. Loneliness occurs in people of all ages. If you feel lonely, it may be more helpful to make a positive connection with a friend than to try and seek out new people to meet.”