The top line: People who have one or more close friendships appear to be happier. It doesn't seem to matter if we have a large network of close relationships or not. What seems to make a difference is if, and how often, we cooperate in activities and share our personal feelings as well as provide support to a friend or relative. Simply put, it’s not the quantity of our relationships, but the quality that matters.
In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were "their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them." ("The New Science of Happiness," Claudia Wallis, Time Magazine, Jan. 09, 2005).
In one study people were asked on random occasions about their mood. They were found to be happiest with their friends, followed by family members, and least happy if they were alone (Larson, Mannell, & Zuzanek, 1986). Another study constructed a scale of cooperativeness, i.e. how willing people were to constructively engage in activities with others. This study showed that the cooperativeness of an individual was a predictor of their happiness, though it did not conclusively show if their cooperation resulted in happiness or the other way around (Lu & Argyle, 1991). A study on the quality of relationships found that to avoid loneliness, people needed only one close relationship coupled with a network of other relationships. To form a close relationship required a growing amount of "self-disclosure," or a willingness to reveal ones personal issues and feelings, and without it people with friends would still be lonely (Jackson, Soderlind & Weiss, 2000). A similar study found that some students who had many friends with whom they often spent time were still plagued by loneliness, and this seemed to be related to their tendency to talk about impersonal topics, such as sports and pop music, instead of their personal life (Wheeler). Having a good close social network at work and maintaining low marital distress also play a beneficial role in one’s happiness and life satisfaction (Ruesch et al. 2004; Smith et al 2012).
Happiness isn’t only gained from social support but may serve more beneficial by providing it (Brown et al. 2003). This study examined how providing social support influences well-being and mortality. It was discovered that the more support provided the greater the decrease in morality. We also lose a sense of meaning in our lives if we experience social exclusion and isolation (Stillman et al 2009). This particular study ran four distinct trials where the participant would be rejected or excluded by others. The researchers discovered that loneliness created lower levels of meaning and a greater increase in depression.
Learn More about Relationships and Happiness:
How were key studies selected?
Key studies concerning relationships were selected according to methodological rigor, type of investigation, and approach taken in understanding the relationship between social, school, romantic, and psychological well-being. Diener’s study from 2002 was identified as a key study because it separated college students into three different happiness groups (high, norm, low) and discovered that the highest happiness group had more satisfying social relations. Stillman’s study from 2009 was identified as a key study because it examined how being socially rejected and ignored would affect happiness and perception of meaningfulness of life. Helsen’s study from 2000 was identified as a key study because it examined two types of relationships (friends and family) and at what age does the support switch importance from one to the other. Smith’s study from 2012 was identified as a key study because it examined how marital distress affects depression. The higher the marital distress, the higher the depression. Zimmerman’s study from 2006 was identified as a key study because it is the longest-running panel to study subjective well-being.
Burgoyne’s study from 2004 was identified as a key study because it examined perceived social support in participants with HIV/AIDS. Krause’s study from 2002 was identified as a key study because it observed older adults with religious beliefs and how religion and the community social support play a role in well-being. Brown’s study from 2003 was identified as a key study because it had an emphasis on providing social support rather than receiving it. It was discovered that providing social support could decrease mortality. Losccocco’s study from 1990 was identified as a key study because it analyzed factory working conditions for both male and female employees. It was determined that social support has a direct effect on well-being. Ruesch’s study from 2004 was identified as a key study because it examined the relationship between work and life satisfaction and it was determined that social support played a large role.