By Marina Renton
What’s the key to happiness in middle age? Be a social butterfly when you’re 20 and keep your friends close at 30. That’s according to a new study looking at the health impacts of social networks over decades.
Researchers at the University of Rochester found that because our social goals change over time, a high quantity of social interactions at age 20 and a high quality of interactions at age 30 was associated with better social and psychological outcomes around age 50. The study appears in the journal Psychology and Aging.
A Pleasant Interaction?
The study was 30 years in the making and began in the ’70s when college students were asked to keep a kind of diary where they logged all their social interactions over a two-week period. They recorded the length of their interactions, the level of intimacy and pleasantness, among other things. The diary method, officially called the Rochester Interaction Record, was designed to capture spontaneous social activity (think pre-Twitter). It was also an attempt to minimize “recall bias.”
Study co-author Cheryl Carmichael, an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, explained why the “diaries” were important: “If I asked somebody, ‘Hey, how’s your social life going these days?’ it could very easily be colored by whatever their morning or afternoon was like,” she said. For instance, your social life might seem bleak if you’ve just argued with your best friend, but if you’ve have it all written down, you can get a more accurate sense of a person’s true social life.
Study participants were asked to complete the “diaries” again at around age 30.
Carmichael then followed up with participants when they were around 50 years old. Why? “There are all these theories out there that talk about how our early adulthood is sort of the prime time for focusing on our social relationships,” she said. “It’s this pivotal, critical period for intimacy development and social connections and focusing on forming relationships.”
Of the 222 adults who were college students when they began the first round of the study, Carmichael was able to reach 133 to conduct the follow-up research. The participants were asked about their social network and the various roles they filled, for instance, parent, co-worker, community member, etc., as well as how many social connections they had. They were also asked about the quality of their friendships and their psychological well-being as measured by their sense of autonomy, purpose, control, loneliness and presence of depressive symptoms, among other things, she said.
Quantity vs. Quality
“What we find is that at age 20, having more frequent activity was associated with better outcomes at midlife, at age 50,” Carmichael said. “People who had more frequent social experiences at age 20 were more socially connected, more socially integrated, had better quality friendships, and were better psychologically adjusted in that they were less depressed, less lonely, and had more of these positive psychological outcomes at age 50.”
Interestingly, frequent social activity didn’t seem to produce the same benefits at age 30, the study found.
Why the difference?
It might have to do with social goals changing over time, Carmichael said: “[Y]ou have certain goals at certain times in life, and there are certain things you need to do to fulfill those goals.”
Twenty-year-olds tend to be “really focused on learning about the world, social information-seeking and knowledge acquisition,” Carmichael said. A greater range of social experiences will build up those skills. For instance: dealing with an annoying roommate may be, well, annoying, but it can also provide valuable life lessons.
As time passes, social information-seeking gives way to a desire for “emotional closeness,” and with that comes the desire for higher-quality social interactions, according to the study.
“At age 30, people who had higher-quality social experiences, experiences that were more intimate and more satisfying, were better-off at age 50 in terms of their friendship quality and in terms of their psychological well-being,” Carmichael said. “Having intimate and high-quality social experiences at that point fulfills that goal for emotional closeness, so it’s satisfying and contributes to this long-term well-being.”
But having many social interactions at age 30 didn’t benefit well-being at 50, perhaps because frequent socializing may distract from the the pursuit of higher quality, more fulfilling social experiences, she said.
The study results were the same for men and women.
One looming question involves the changing definition of social activity. In the ’70s and ’80s, when the participants were first logging their interactions, they were only face-to-face. How texting and social media use affect the building of quality relationships has yet to be studied, Carmichael said.
“Typically, intimacy is generated when one person discloses something, and the other person responds in a way that lets you know, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, I validate you, I care about you,’ ” she said. “In a face-to-face interaction, you have a lot of nonverbal cues…is an Emoji of a happy face the same?”