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Your friends make you happier than family?

Friendships are less judgmental and and more likely to be positive. Having good friends can even make you healthier.

Do you believe that blood is thicker than water? That your family relationships are more important than friends? Well, think again. Research from Michigan State University suggests that friends may make you happier and healthier than your relatives.

As William Chopik, associate professor of psychology and author of the study says: “Friends are a conscious choice. Family relationships can be serious, negative and monotonous.” The research included two studies – one a broad survey of nearly 300,000 people, aged between 15 and 99, from more than 90 countries. This study found that those who valued friendships highly were healthier and happier (according to their own reports), especially as they got older. The second study used data from a US survey of 7,481 people over 50. Subjects were questioned about the quality of their friendships – how much friends understood them and how much they let them down. They were also asked how strongly they agreed with the statement: “My life is close to ideal.” Over the next six years they were followed up and asked whether they had illnesses such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease.

When friendships were reported as being stressful, people reported higher rates of disease. When friends were supportive, people were healthier. Most of the friendships were reported as being supportive. Family, however, were found to have little influence on an individual’s health and wellbeing. Spouses and children had some effect, but not as much as friends.

Chopik says he isn’t suggesting we ignore our families, but that friends make us feel better. “With friends you are more likely to do activities – they provide an outlet. You can say things to friends and they are less judgmental. There is a distance there that provides a level of honesty.”

Research consistently shows the benefits of friendships – a review of 148 studies with more than 308,000 people found that those with strong social relationships increased their odds of survival over the seven years of the study by 50%. The researchers pointed out that this increase is comparable to the health benefits of giving up smoking. Other research shows that people generally say they have a better time with friends than with relatives in later life. However, friendships often fall away after people cohabit, marry or have children. Chopik says the fall can be from five or six close friends to two or three. He says that cultivating good-quality friendships across our lives is beneficial – raising self-esteem and buffering against stress. We tend to naturally drop friendships that aren’t good for us or are superficial. Listening and being trustworthy are important in good friendships – the same qualities that would enhance family relationships.

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