Towards a scientific understanding of who we are

A friend in need

Jan. 22, 2021 - EAST LANSING, Mich.

Friends are more than just trusted confidantes, say Michigan State University researchers who have examined the cultural and health benefits of close human relationships in a new study.

"Friendships are one of the untapped resources people can draw on to pursue a happier and healthier life. They literally cost nothing and have health and well-being benefits," said William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU and the study's senior author.

Published in Frontiers of Psychology, the study is the largest of its kind and included 323,200 participants from 99 countries. Prior studies compared only a few specific cultures to one another—but did not take such a comprehensive view.

"We found that placing a value on friendship was good for people's health and well-being regardless of where they lived. However, looking at as an important part of life is more important in some cultures than it is in others."

Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain.

Using the World Values Survey, the researchers pulled data from multiple sources including datasets on friendship, health, happiness findings; economic variables; and cultural variables.

Researchers found that around the world those who invest in friendships enjoy better physical and , particularly older adults or those with less education. The benefits are especially evident in cultures that are more individualistic, unequal or constraining.

"People who come from more privileged settings have a lot of resources that contribute to their health and happiness, but it looks like—for those who don't have those resources—friendships might serve as a particularly important factor in their lives," Chopik said.

One of the goals of MSU's Close Relationships Lab—founded and run by Chopik—is to examine friendships and study them in ways that people can improve their lives for the better.

"In today's world there's a general feeling that we're in a 'friendship crisis' in which people are lonely and want friends but struggle to make them," Chopik said. "We show here that they're beneficial for nearly everyone, everywhere. But why are they so hard to form and keep? That's what we're working on next."

Lu, P., Oh, J., Leahy, K. E., & Chopik, W. J. (2021). Friendship Importance Around the World: Links to Cultural Factors, Health, and Well-Being. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.570839

Abstract: Prioritizing friendship is associated with many health and well-being benefits. However, to date, there have been relatively few studies that have examined cultural moderators of the link between friendship and important outcomes. In other words, is prioritizing friendships more beneficial in some contexts than others? In the current study, we examined how culture- and country-level factors were associated with the importance people place on friendships and the benefits derived from this importance. The sample comprised of 323,200 participants (M = 40.79 years, SD = 16.09 years) from 99 countries from the World Values Survey. Multilevel analyses revealed that women, people with higher levels of education, and people living in countries that are more economically equal and high in indulgence placed more value on friendships. Prioritizing friendships in life was associated with better health and well-being, but these associations depended on many cultural factors. The findings are discussed in the context of the ways in which friendships can enrich health and well-being across different settings.

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Psychology is the science of mind and behaviour, and as such has enormous scope. It's all relevant to human nature, but we try to limit our focus to those studies that tell us something about our morality, beliefs, and consciousness. Until recently these areas were considered by many to be outside the scientific realm altogether.

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