While previous research has investigated social networks and well-being, few have considered differences across the life span. A recent study examined age differences in number of social contacts and the relationship between number of contacts, social satisfaction, and well-being across the life span. The researchers were especially interested in close relationships.
The study used data from two online surveys that were previously conducted as a part of RAND’s American Life Panel. The panel includes adults recruited through random digit dialing, address-based sampling, and similar approaches. The sample included 496 individuals who responded to social network questions in the first survey, which took place between 2011 and 2013, with 287 of these participants responding to questions about social network satisfaction and well-being 18 days later in the second survey. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 85.
The surveys asked participants about in-person, phone, mail, and online contact with close friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, school or childhood relations, people who provided a service, and others. Social satisfaction was assessed with the question, “How satisfied are you with your social contacts and family life?” In addition, well-being was determined by a scale that asked about how participants felt during the past 30 days (e.g., nervous, calm and peaceful, tired, blue, etc.)
The study found that while older adults had fewer social contacts, there were no differences in the number of close contacts by age. Older adults tended to have fewer family members and more neighbors in their network. In addition, social satisfaction was unrelated to age, and feelings of well-being increased with age. The number of close friends was associated with both social satisfaction and well-being across all ages. However, the quality of close relationships appeared to be more important to well-being than quantity. Well-being was more strongly related to social satisfaction than the number of close friends.
Given this finding, the authors stated that older adults may be better able to reduce feelings of loneliness by staying in touch with current contacts rather than making new friends. In this case, internet access and computer training may be important tools in addressing loneliness.
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