The power of friendship may be more important to our happiness and health than family relationships, according to a new study which found that just a few good friends can make a world of difference to a person's well-being.
In a study of nearly 280,000 people, researchers found that in older adults, friendships are actually a stronger predictor of health and happiness than relationships with family members.
"Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being. So it is smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest," said William Chopik, assistant professor at Michigan State University in the US.
Researchers analysed survey information about relationships and self-rated health and happiness from 271,053 participants of all ages from nearly 100 countries.
They also looked at data from a separate survey about relationship support or strain and chronic illness from 7,481 older adults in the US.
Researchers found that both family and friend relationships were linked to better health and happiness overall, but only friendships became a stronger predictor of health and happiness at advanced ages.
Friendships were very influential, researchers said. When friends were the source of strain, participants reported more chronic illnesses and when they were the source of support, participants were happier.
Perhaps due to the optional nature of relationships - that over time, we keep the friends we like and make us feel good and discard the rest, Chopik said.
Friends also can provide a source of support for people who do not have spouses or for those who do not lean on family in times of need.
Friends can also help prevent loneliness in older adults who may experience bereavement and often rediscover their social lives after they retire.
Family relationships are often enjoyable too, Chopik said, but sometimes they involve serious, negative and monotonous interactions.
"There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults. These show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness more and ultimately how long we'll live, more so than spousal and family relationships," he said.
Friendships often take a 'back seat' in relationships research, Chopik added, which is strange, especially considering that they might be more influential for our happiness and health than other relationships.
"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," he added.
The study was published in the journal Personal Relationships.