Are Friends Better For Us Than Family?



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Are friends better for us than family? Can friends help us live longer than family relationships can? 

Well, according to new research from Michigan State University, the power of friendships gets stronger with age and may even be more important than family relationships in extending not only our quality of life, but in how long we live.  In a pair of studies involving nearly 280,000 people, William Chopick found that friendships become increasingly important to our happiness and health across the span of our lives. Not only that, but according to his research with older adults, friendships are actually stronger predictors of health and happiness than relationships with family members. 

Almost nothing there should be particularly surprising.  The idea that a thicker network of relationships, friendships and family relationships will help us live longer and happier lives has been proven many times before, and it’s always nice to be reminded that a better web of relationships will help us to live longer and happier lives. But that last bit about friends over family, really should catch our attention. Better friendships are gonna contribute to longer, happier lives more than family relationships will?

In fact, according to the study, both family and friends are linked to better health, but it’s only the friendships that become a stronger predictor of health as we get older and older. So there are two possibilities for why it is that as we get older and older, better friendships, more than family relationships, help us to live longer. One is death. That’s right. The truth is as we get older and older, people we had in our youth, our family, they die off and they’re not present anymore. But we can select friends in new ways at new stages and they can still be with us. 

The other issue is optionality. It could have to do with the fact that you don’t get to pick your family but you do get to pick your friends. And it’s specifically the optional nature of our friendships that Chopick suggests as significant.  Over time, we keep the friends we like, the ones who make us feel good, and we discard the rest. So the reason friendships are more important for longer, happier lives than family relationships are, is that. we simply throw away the friends who no longer make us happy.

 In fact, according to Chopick, “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.” Now that sounds kind of pretty, except that can be reduced to a very simple, and I don’t think sufficient, process. It can be cooked down to, “You’re good for me, you make me happy, so I love you.” Now there is nothing wrong with loving the people who are good to us and who make us happy. But what about another premise? 

What about, “I love you, so you are good for me and it makes me happy to love you.” See it’s not that I question the value of chosen friendships and their value. I know how they work in my life and I can’t imagine living without them and I hope I’m not dying anytime soon.  But there is also a givenness to family relationships where I am willing to love beyond the boundaries of what feels good or where I’m getting an immediate pay off. And not because I’m some Buddha-like or Gandhi-like guy, not because I live like some saint and I can just love no matter what, beyond all boundaries. But because there is a real value in having at least some relationships in our lives, in which we say, “my love for you goes beyond how you’re immediately good for me”.  

And no, that’s not an excuse for hanging in with relationships that are abusive, dangerous, or unhealthy for us. It’s just about cultivating a kind of given’ness with some relationships, alongside the chosenness of friendship that feels good — The givenness of love that we’re willing to hang in with even when it doesn’t feel so good.

 It’s not an either or. I think it’s a both and. We need the payoff, the gratification. We need the sense of I will love you because you’re good for me. No question about it. But I can’t imagine living without also at least some relationships where even when you annoy the crap out of me, I know that at some deep level, I’m gonna keep on loving you. And because I’m going to keep on loving you, that’s what’ll be good for me. 

On any given day, you may not be so good, but my love for you is. In fact, if I look back on relationships with parents and my relationship with my wife, my siblings and actually those I consider my best friends — Yeah, they’re good for me but I also know that there have been moments when I decided to love, and I think they decided to love me, even when it didn’t feel so good. And I’m pretty sure that as much as the good moments led to love, the love moments have led to goodness.

 As much as the good moments have led to longer life, the loving beyond and past, and through the absence of good moments, has also led to a longer, happier life. So, I guess the question about friends being better for us than family should really be answered “Yes, until family is better for us than friends.”  The real challenge and opportunity here is how we cultivate both, not which one do we choose.

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