Want to have happy sunset years? Make sure you have lots of friends. Family? Not as important, according to a pair of new studies involving 280,000 people.

The studies, led by William Chopik of Michigan State University, found that relationships with friends are a stronger predictor of health and happiness in older people than close relationships with their relatives.

hatfields

The Hatfields

According to Chopik, speaking with MSU Daily, ““Friendships become even more important as we age. Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being. So it’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.”

It was the first study that put friends before family as a good thing to have. The team analyzed survey responses from 271,053 people of all ages from almost 100 countries — the subjects had been asked to rate their health and happiness, and to report whether their most valued relationships were with friends or family. The researchers found that having a greater interest in friendships proved a stronger and stronger predictor of health and happiness as people got older. On the other hand, no such correlation was found for people who reported familial relationships as being more worth having.

The second, longitudinal, study was smaller, focusing on 7,481 older Americans, and analyzed the effects of supportiive vs. unsupportive relationships, regardless of who they were with: friends, spouses, or children. Not surprisingly, these surveys found that people with supportive relationships were more likely to thrive over the eight-year period studied. Those reporting unsatisfying, or even stressful, relationships reported a higher incidence of chronic illness over a six-year-period.

stop shouting

Please stop shouting at me. (THIS YEAR’S LOVE)

Chopik suspects it’s all got to do with the old adage, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” As a result, we continually refine our collection of friends, weeding out over time those with whom we have less enjoyable relationships. “Friendships help us stave off loneliness but are often harder to maintain across the lifespan,” Chopik says. “If a friendship has survived the test of time, you know it must be a good one — a person you turn to for help and advice often and a person you wanted in your life.”

And to flip the adage on its head, you also have no control over whether your family survives or is geographically available to you, so friends often fill a void for those without families. Finally, given that friendships tend to be based on common interests, friends may be in a better position to help someone overcome loss and find things to enjoy in life.

Chopik hopes his research helps change the emphasis in studies of relationships in older people. He asserts that friendships have been studied less frequently than familial relationships. So he's pleased that, “There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults. Summaries of these studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness more and ultimately how long we’ll live, more so than spousal and family relationships.”