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Real-life friends make you happier

by CIFAR Jan 31 / 13

A new happiness study by Program Co-Director and Arthur J.E. Child Foundation Fellow John Helliwell (University of British Columbia) and former CIFAR-funded post-doctoral fellow Haifang Huang investigated the effects that real and online friends have on an individual’s well-being.

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Their findings: real-life friends have a very large impact on one’s level of happiness, while there is no such impact from the size of one’s online network. Though the advantage of real-life friendships may not be a surprise, the researchers’ economic models quantified just how valuable real-life relationships can be.

Basing on a sample of 5,000 Canadians drawn at random and controlling for income, demographic factors and personality, the researchers found that doubling the number of real-life friends has an effect on well-being equivalent to a 50 per cent increase in income. Real-life friends are especially important for people who are single, the study found, because life partners and spouses provided similar happiness benefits as did having friends.

“One of the study’s unexpected results was that those who are dating are almost as happy as those living together and to those who are married,” says Dr. Helliwell. “Consistent with this data, we also found that the happiness effect of having real friends is smaller for those who are married, suggesting that marriage is also a powerful source of friendship.”

By contrast, the size of one’s online networks had no positive effect on well-being.

“From all the evidence showing the importance of face-to-face connections with friends, neighbours and colleagues, we were expecting that the happiness links from online friends would be much smaller than that for real-life friends,” says Dr. Helliwell. “But we didn’t expect that the correlation between online friends and happiness should be zero, or in some cases, even negative.”

The findings are published in a working paper entitled “Comparing the happiness effects of real and online friends” through the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research.

This study was the first to compare the happiness effects of real-life friendships with those of online networks.