Think about how many friends you have, because the number may impact your happiness.

A recent British study found that having more than 10 friends is associated with greater psychological well-being. For this study, researchers recorded the number of friends that subjects had at the age of 45 and then measured their well-being five years later, when they were 50. It’s fair to assume that their findings would apply to adults of other ages as well.

But the key question is…how did researchers define the word “friend”?

There are Facebook “friends” with whom you exchange cute pet photos…“friends” who e-mail or text you jokes and chain letters…and “friends” you occasionally chat with over the phone. And then there are the men and women you see in person at least once a month—such as people you have lunch with, exercise with or see movies with, or the people you interact with regularly at your place of worship or in your neighborhood.

Which type of “friend” are we really talking about here?

We spoke with the lead researcher to find out…


In the study, which involved British men and women, participants were asked to approximate the numbers of friends with whom they met “once a month or more.” So that’s the definition that they used.

Results: Compared with having 10 or fewer friends, having more than 10 friends at age 45 was associated with a higher level of psychological well-being—meaning having more confidence and feeling more content—at age 50. These results held true even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors and previous psychological health.

Researchers studied psychological well-being five years later because they wanted to see whether friendship was predictive of better psychological health—not the other way around.


To learn more about why having lots of friends may offer a mental health boost, we contacted lead study author Noriko Cable, PhD.

Dr. Cable told us something really fascinating—prior research has found that frequent contact with friends is associated with low levels of chronic inflammation in the body—that’s right, friendship may reduce inflammation. Since one big cause of chronic inflammation is stress, the theory is that people who are in frequent contact with friends may respond to stress better than those who aren’t. And responding to stress better may help improve mental health, too.

What about if you get together with the same friend a dozen times in the same month? Is that just as beneficial as meeting with the same number of different friends? Dr. Cable’s study didn’t address that question, but she hopes that future research will.

What is it about meeting friends in person that is so beneficial? When body language is involved, Dr. Cable said, it’s easier to understand the other person’s emotions (such as through a smile, a hug, a touch on the shoulder or a concerned look), show your own emotions and connect with the other person more deeply.


A different part of Dr. Cable’s study looked at “kinship networks”—the number of family members (outside the immediate family) whom subjects saw in person at least once a month. Compared with seeing 10 or fewer relatives at age 45, seeing more than 10 relatives was associated with a higher level of psychological well-being at age 50—but only in men. There was no association among women. The researchers speculated that this may be because women are often assumed to take on a caring role in relating to their relatives, which can sometimes feel like an emotional burden and cause stress, counteracting any psychological gain.


Making new friends and staying connected to old ones can be difficult, especially in midlife, Dr. Cable said—mainly because many of us are so focused on our careers and/or family obligations that we don’t have much time left over to devote to friends. But there are easy ways to make friends a higher priority in your life.

For instance, it can be amazingly easy to rekindle an old friendship with a former high school or college classmate who lives nearby through social media (such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn) or by attending a class reunion. Once you’ve reconnected, set up a recurring coffee date on your calendars—such as on the first Friday of every month—so you’ll be less inclined to let it slide.

If you’re dying to reunite with a friend who lives far away and meeting up is too expensive, Dr. Cable suggested using a video chat service such as Skype. While her study didn’t examine this particular form of communication, she said that it is the closest thing to actual face-to-face interaction, so it’s likely to be beneficial to your mental health.

And when it comes to seeking out brand new chums, joining a class or social activity—whether it’s photography, bird-watching or swing dancing—is a good bet, because you can be sure that others involved in the activity are there to make friends, too, and are likely to share your interests.

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