Age Differences in Reported Social Networks and Well-Being

Published in: Psychology and Aging (November 2019). doi: 10.1037/pag0000415

by Wandi Bruine de Bruin, Andrew M. Parker, JoNell Strough

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Social networks can consist of close friends, family members, and neighbors as well as peripheral others. Studies of social networks and associations with well-being have mostly focused on age-restricted samples of older adults or specific geographic areas, thus limiting their generalizability. We analyzed 2 online surveys conducted with RAND's American Life Panel, a national adult life span sample recruited through multiple probability-based approaches. In Survey 1, 496 participants assessed the sizes of their social networks, including the number of close friends, family members, neighbors, and peripheral others. Of those, 287 rated their social satisfaction and well-being on Survey 2. Older participants reported smaller social networks, largely because of reporting fewer peripheral others. Yet older age was associated with better well-being. Although the reported number of close friends was unrelated to age, it was the main driver of well-being across the life span—even after accounting for the number of family members, neighbors, and peripheral others. However, well-being was more strongly related to social satisfaction than to the reported number of close friends—suggesting that it is the perception of relationship quality rather than the perception of relationship quantity that is relevant to reporting better well-being. We discuss implications for social network interventions that aim to promote well-being.

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