More friends improves mental wellbeing for men and women, study finds

28 August 2012


Having a wide circle of friends in middle age improves mental wellbeing for both men and women, a recent study has found.

Researchers from University College London analysed data from more than 6,500 members of the 1958 National Child Development Study. They found that those who had ten or more friends whom they saw regularly had significantly higher levels of psychological wellbeing than cohort members with fewer regular contacts. This was true regardless of whether or not the cohort member had a job, a partner or a history of mental health problems.

Kinship networks were also found to be important to wellbeing, but only for men and to a lesser extent than friendships. A lack of close relatives had no emotional impact on women.

Four in ten men and around one in three women said they had more than six friends whom they saw once a month or more. Around one in ten respondents said they had no friends, and one in seven said they had no contacts with relatives outside their immediate households.

The researchers also looked at what socioeconomic factors affected the size of cohort members’ social networks. Staying in full-time education beyond the age of 16 reduced the size of men’s friendship networks, but increased the size of women’s. Women’s friendship networks increased by 38 per cent if they left full-time education between age 17 and 19, and by 74 per cent if they stayed on past age 20.

The age that men and women left full-time education was also linked to the size of their kinship networks. Women were 17 per cent less likely to have a higher number of close relatives if they left school between the ages of 17 and 19, and men were 45 per cent less likely. Both men and women who stayed on in education until 20 or beyond were 60 per cent less likely to have a larger kinship network.

Having a partner was associated with a larger kinship network. Being single reduced that probability by 31 per cent for men and by 26 per cent for women, but had no impact on friendship networks.

The full article Friends are equally important to men and women, but family matters more for men’s well-being by N. Cable, M. Bartley, T. Chandola and A. Sacker is available online from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.


Looking for more research on this topic? Search studies using British cohort study data with CLS’s online bibliography.