Study reveals whether friends or family make people happier

A researcher from the University of Sussex looks at whether people are happier with friends or family, and how physical location plays into the mix.

A couple spends time with their child on the beach

(Photo by Getty Images)

Friends or family? When it comes to generating happiness, some prefer the company of their friends, while others are more family-oriented. Me? I’m more inclined to believe that both relationships can provide happiness — albeit different depths and levels of satisfaction. Think about it: the kind of joy I get out of going out for a girl’s night is a very different type of happy than the kind I get seeing my kids happily hanging out with their grandparents.

Meanwhile in two recent studies, researcher George MacKerron discovered that being with friends offers a slightly greater boost in happiness than being with family. Here, MacKerron, a lecturer with the University of Sussex’s department of economics, shares his insights on the surprising findings.

Q: What was your take on the fact that we’re less happy with family than with friends?
A: We found that being with family members — other than one’s partner — is associated with greater happiness than being alone. And being with one’s partner or friends is associated with even greater happiness. So you could make the argument that being with family is less good than being with friends — but I think the more important point is that both are significantly positive predictors of happiness.

Q: Any thoughts as to why that might be?
A: Well, it’s a positive effect, so we can infer that people broadly like to be with their family. And it’s smaller than the effect of being with friends. There are a few potential explanations for that. First, people choose their friends but not their family, and it makes sense that they’d choose friends who make them happy! Second, although we control for a lot of other factors (such as weather and activity), perhaps the situations that people are in with family are somehow different from and less enjoyable than the situations they’re in with friends, and in a way that we haven’t been able to fully control for.

Q: Any other interesting findings in your research?
A: Our recent paper on natural environments suggests that some kinds of natural environments have a slightly bigger positive impact on women than men. And being outdoors has a bigger positive impact on older people than younger people.

Q: What can our readers take from this and apply to their lives?
A: It’s in line with what you’d expect: spend time with partners, friends and family outdoors and in natural environments, in good weather, and do enjoyable things — particularly physical or cultural activities — there.

The value of this study isn’t that it contradicts our assumptions about what makes us happy: it’s that it helps prove that some of the less easily measured relationships (such as with nature) are important, and quantify how important they are relative to others.

Do you find you enjoy yourself more with your friends than with your family? Tell us in the comment section below.

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