As we age, do close relationships or weaker social connections benefit us more? The long-term association between different types of social ties and emotional well-being was examined in a recent study that earned a 2020 Bronze Innovative Research on Aging Award.
Study data were from the Survey of Social Relations, a longitudinal study representative of the Detroit tri-county metropolitan area. Data were collected in 1992, 2005, and 2015. Participants in the original study who were at least 40 years old were included in this analysis, excluding individuals with a particularly large social network (20 or more people), for a total of 802 respondents. Close ties were defined as “people to whom you feel so close that it is hard to imagine life without them.” Weaker ties included “people to whom you may not feel quite that close who are still very important to you” and “people whom you haven’t already mentioned but who are close enough and important enough in your life that they should be placed in your personal network.”
To measure emotional well-being, positive mood and depressed mood were assessed. The researchers hypothesized that over time, maintaining a greater number of close social ties would be more strongly associated with low levels of depressed mood than would maintaining a large number of weaker ties. They also hypothesized that over the long term, having a large number of weaker ties would impact positive mood more than a larger number of close ties.
Among the findings, the study determined that having a greater number of weaker ties earlier in the study was connected to better maintenance of the number of closer ties later in life. The researchers believed that investing in weaker ties may compensate for the loss of close ties later. The researchers also discovered that a larger number of weaker ties was more strongly associated with both positive mood and less depressed mood later in life than was the number of close ties. While the authors acknowledge the importance of close ties, the study demonstrated that weaker ties offer important benefits for older adults.
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Huxhold O, Fiori KL, Webster NJ, Antonucci TC. The strength of weaker ties: An underexplored resource for maintaining emotional well-being in later life. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B; (2020); Feb 14.