College friendships can determine how happy you'll be in your 50s

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If you ever look back on college and wonder if spending night after night socializing with randos in your dorm you'll probably never see again IRL was worth it, great news: New research suggests that having an active and diverse social life at age 20 can lead to happiness decades down the road.


The study, published in Psychology and Aging, found that the friendships you cultivate in your early 20s and again in your early 30s have an impact on your psychological well-being when you’re in your 50s—albeit, in different ways. The researchers came to their conclusions after comparing data provided by participants over three decades.

Fusion spoke with lead author Cheryl Carmichael, now a psychology professor at Brooklyn College, who made us feel a whole lot better about that one time we stayed up till 4 AM debating the merits of Kant's categorical imperative versus Hegel's dialectic (okay fine, queso versus guac) with the soccer team.

That was then

When the early rounds of the study kicked off in 1974, researchers at the University of Rochester enlisted 222 undergrads to keep a diary of every meaningful social interaction they had (that lasted for 10 minutes or longer) over a two-week stretch. Along with simply jotting down that the interaction happened, participants rated the quality according to intimacy, pleasantness, and satisfaction—providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The researchers had the participants do the same thing ten years later. The paper was finally published in 1991.

This is now-ish

Fast forward to 2007, when Carmichael, who was then a PhD candidate at Rochester, picked up where the study left off, under the guidance of the original researcher. Carmichael wrangled 133 of the original participants, now in their 50s, to participate in a follow-up survey.


For the survey, participants provided information about their core group of friends, including how they would rate their relationships with these peeps. They also answered questions about their psychological well-being—rating their autonomy, environmental mastery, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, and sense of purpose in life.

Finally, Carmichael compared the data that participants provided around age 20, 30, and 50—and found some interesting correlations!


In our 20s, quantity of friendships matters

Turns out, the more social interactions participants had in their 20s, the better the emotional and psychological outcome in their 50s. That’s right, the more folks you hang around and have even slightly meaningful interactions with, the better well-off you may be down the road.


Carmichael explained it like this: “In the very beginning of early adulthood, we’re in this phase of social information seeking,” she said. “We’re trying to learn about the world and having lots of social interactions give us the experience to build that toolset for us. “

In other words, interacting with a bunch of friends (who don’t have to necessarily be our BFFs) in our early 20s helps us develop social skills that help us navigate the world around us. It provides a map, of sorts, as we embark on our adult social lives.


In our 30s, quality of friendships matters

When we hit our 30s, however, quality friendships becomes more important—having just a few close friends at this point in life can help predict wellbeing later on.


“By the time we get to age 30, our goals change. They shift towards goals that are more focused on emotional closeness,” said Carmichael. “The people who had high-quality, intimate, satisfying social interactions at age 30 were more likely to have better interpersonal relationships and be better psychologically adjusted at age 50.”

Notably, though, the quantity of social interactions at this age had no bearing on midlife wellbeing. It don’t matter how many friends you have at age 30, as long as they’re good ones.


Carmichael pointed out that the data available was collected from a mostly white cohort of upstate New York private school students in the 1970s, so the sample is limited. But taken with other research about how formative our 20s can be, the study provides an interesting jumping off point for further exploration.

In the meantime, if you're between the age of 20 and 30, time to start brutally weeding out your social circle! It's not going to whittle down on its own. Of course, you will probably want to bribe shower your favorites with love. Just in case.