Real-Life Friends More Important Than Online Friends, Study Shows

Does having hundreds of Facebook friends really make you happier?

That’s the question being addressed in a new study published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research.  The study, called “Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-Line Friends,” looks at the value of online and in-person social networks.

The research is based on the Happiness Monitor survey, which evaluated Canadian participants from all 10 provinces in 2011.  Over 5,000 participants were asked a variety of lifestyle questions, such as which job they believe is the happiest in Canada. The survey also evaluated the well-being of Canadians, including their happiness and stress levels.

The main purpose of the survey was to examine online and real-life social networks. Participants were asked to quantify the time they spend with friends each month. Researchers were looking for a link between the happiness level of participants and the type of friend—in-person or online—they tend to correspond with the most.

As it turns out, there is a clear connection between the number of friends you have and your happiness level. Not only are people more content with a large network of friends, but interacting with them in real life can make you even happier. The more frequently you hang out with friends, the more stress-free you generally feel.

Unfortunately, online networks aren’t quite as beneficial. It’s not that online friends are bad for you, but according to the study, the size of these networks does not positively affect happiness levels. Whether you have only a few online contacts, or more than 300, there’s no significant change in your happiness level.

One important point the study makes is that the value of social networks varies from person to person. For people who are not in romantic relationships, real-life friends are particularly important. Interestingly, these relationships have less impact on people who are married or who live with their significant other.

In the published paper, Canadian professors John Helliwell and Haifang Huang acknowledge that the results “are likely to be specific to generations, countries, and demographic groups.” They also predict that technological changes will continue to affect how we use social networks in our daily lives.

Online social networks have been something of a hot topic lately, especially with the launch of Facebook’s new Graph Search tool. To find out more about the Happiness Monitor survey, the published results are available now on the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research website.

Image: The New York Times