The University Record, April 12, 1999

How many friends are enough?

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

By the time we reach 30 years of age, our desire to socialize already is shrinking, according to a study by psychologists at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). The study challenges the assumption that older men and women are necessarily suffering from unwanted social isolation because they have fewer friends than they used to have.

"If older people have fewer friends than they used to have, it isn't necessarily reason to worry," says Jennifer E. Lansford, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and first author of the study, published in a recent issue of Psychology and Aging.

"There's a negative image that older people have fewer friends than they used to because they are withdrawing from life, or their friends are disappearing because of death or chronic disease. But actually, older men and women may be satisfied with fewer friends by choice."

What's more, the process of winnowing out people you're not as emotionally close to may start as early as the age of 30, her study shows.

For the study, Lansford and her colleagues analyzed systematic differences in how satisfied more than 5,400 men and women-ranging in age from their 20s to their 90s-were with the size of their social networks. They also analyzed age-related differences in how often people got together with friends.

Among the findings in the study:

 About half the people in their 20s said they were satisfied with the number of friends they had, compared with 57 percent of people in their 30s and 40s, and 63 percent of people older than 60.

 About 75 percent of people in their 20s got together with friends at least once a week, compared with 63 percent of people in their 30s, 58 percent of people in their 40s, 59 percent of people in their 50s, and 54 percent of people age 60 and older.

The findings suggest that interventions designed to increase older adults' social contacts may be misguided, Lansford said. Telling older people to go out and make new friends may be advice that falls wide of the mark if older people are satisfied with the number of friends they have already.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute on Aging. Lansford's colleagues on the study are Aurora M. Sherman, now at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and Toni C. Antonucci, senior research scientist at ISR and professor of psychology.