Friends or Family – what is the key to happiness ?

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Think spending time with your kids and spouse is the key to your happiness?

You may actually be happier getting together with your friends, said SMU psychology professor Nathan Hudson.

Hudson’s research finds that people report higher levels of well-being while hanging with their friends than they do with their romantic partner or children.

In fact, being around romantic partners predicted the least amount of happiness among these three groups, reveals a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Hudson stressed, however, that the finding has more to do with the activity than the person it is shared with.

That’s because people tend to spend more of their time doing enjoyable activities with friends than they do with family members, who occasionally find themselves together doing unpleasant tasks like chores or caretaking duties.

“Our study suggests that this doesn’t have to do with the fundamental nature of kith versus kin relationships,” he said. “When we statistically controlled for activities, the ‘mere presence’ of children, romantic partners, and friends predicted similar levels of happiness.

Thus, this paper provides an optimistic view of family and suggests that people genuinely enjoy their romantic partners and children.”

More than 400 study participants were asked to think back on times with their friends or family – identify the activity they shared – and rate whether those experiences left them feeling various emotions, such as happy, satisfied, and with a sense of meaning. Each emotion was rated from 0 (almost never) to 6 (almost always).

This information and other responses about how study participants felt at different times allowed Hudson and his co-authors, Richard E. Lucas and M. Brent Donnellan, to estimate rates of happiness with their friends and family.

Lucas and Donnellan are both from Michigan State University.

The activities people most frequently perform while they’re with their romantic partners include socializing, relaxing, and eating. People tend to do similar activities when they are with their friends, too.

They just do a lot more of these enjoyable tasks while hanging with their friends and a lot less housework, the study found. For instance, 65 percent of experiences with friends involved socializing, but only 28 percent of the time shared with partners.

Spending time with their children also meant more time doing things that had a negative association, such as housework and commuting.

However, the activity that people reported most often with their offspring – childcare – was viewed positively.

And overall, people report feeling similar levels of well-being while in the presence of friends, partners, and children once the activity was taken out of the equation.

There’s a lesson here, Hudson said. “It’s important to create opportunities for positive experiences with romantic partners and children – and to really mentally savor those positive times.

In contrast, family relationships that involve nothing but chores, housework, and childcare likely won’t predict a lot of happiness.”


Friendships are fundamental to human social life. People direct great effort toward both the formation and maintenance of friendships, investing time, energy, money, and emotional resources. Across cultures, friendship is reliably linked to the experi-
ence of positive emotions such as happiness (Brannan et al. 2013; Camfield et al. 2009; Chan and Lee 2006; Lu 1995, 1999; for a review see Demir et al. 2013), an association that is present in both same-sex and cross-sex friendships (Argyle 1999), and which holds from early adulthood (Demir and Weitekamp 2007) through old age (Larson et al. 1986).

Why are friendships so important to our happiness? An evolutionary perspective may shed light on this issue. Friendships were almost certainly recurrently linked to survival and reproduction during human evolutionary history, and the specific benefits that accrue to individuals in different types of friendship may offer unique insight into the evolutionary impetuses for these relationships.

An evolutionary perspective can offer insight into how specific types of friendship would have benefitted ancestral humans in both the currency of natural selection—reproductive success—and the currency of subjective well-being, happiness.

In this chapter, we discuss the relationship between friendship and happinessfrom an evolutionary perspective by outlining the hypothesized ancestral functions of friendship, and explain why we would expect immersion in such friendships to result in positive emotions such as happiness.

We then explore the empirical literature on different friendship types and how each friendship type (e.g., same-sex friendship, cross-sex friendship) is characterized by a unique profile of benefits as well as costs. Finally, we propose evolutionarily inspired strategies for individuals to enhance their friendships and maximize the happiness they reap from these im- portant social relationships.

An Evolutionary Approach to Friendship and Happiness

An evolutionary approach may yield valuable insight into why friendships and im- mersion in quality social relationships are consistently linked to happiness (Corneau 2009; Demir et al. 2013). It suggests that positive emotions such as happiness are produced by motivational programs that evolved because of their ability to guide ancestral humans to repeat behaviors associated with increased survival and reproductive success (Cosmides and Tooby 2000; Hill et al. 2013; Kenrick et al. 2010). Having friends would have dramatically increased ancestral humans’ likelihood of survival and reproduction (Tooby and DeVore 1987).

Consequently, selection could have favored mechanisms that produced happiness in response to such friendships to the extent that this subjective experience motivated ancestral humans to form and maintain these beneficial relationships. In the following section, we briefly outline several different evolutionary pathways by which psychological adaptations to form and maintain friendships could have evolved.

Evolutionary Models of Friendship

Reciprocal Altruism

Non-evolutionary research has investigated friendship as a means of social ex- change in which individuals select friends on the basis of the costs and benefits associated with these friendships (Befu 1977; Emerson 1976; Homans 1958). Al- though these hypotheses about friend preferences and selection do not articulate the specific benefits exchanged in these friendships, an evolutionary perspective can illuminate how such social exchange relationships could have evolved.

The theory of reciprocal altruism postulates that altruistic tendencies toward non-relatives can evolve when the delivery of benefits is reciprocated at some point in the future (Axelrod 1984; Cosmides and Tooby 1992; Trivers 1971). Such exchange relation- ships can result in net fitness benefits for both parties involved—a condition econo- mists refer to as a “gain in trade” (Kemp 1995).

Selection could thus have led to the evolution of mechanisms that motivate individuals to form and maintain these highly beneficial social exchange relationships.
To illustrate how such exchange relationships could have evolved, consider the adaptive problem our ancestors faced of hunting large game to acquire meat.

Ancestral humans rarely hunted large game alone due to the risky and costly nature of hunting dangerous prey (Milton 1999; Tooby and DeVore 1987). Ancestral humans who formed friendships and coalitions in the service of solving this adaptive problem would have experienced improved survival and reproductive rates, as these coalitions incur fewer costs and enjoy greater success in the hunt for dangerous game (Buss 2004; Hill and Hurtado 1996; Tooby and DeVore 1987).

Because individuals who hunted together were more likely to secure nutritious food, over many generations, selection would have favored mechanisms that motivated individuals to form friendships and coalitions to achieve these goals.
The key concept illustrated here is that friendships relationships may have delivered unique sets of benefits linked to ancestral humans’ survival and reproduction.
It is likely that our ancestors benefitted greatly from these kinds of relationships, and that reciprocal exchange formed the basis not only for many ancestral friendships, but for the mechanisms that lead to friendships in modern environments as well.

The Alliance Model of Friendship

Another recent evolutionary perspective suggests that human friendship is based on evolved computational systems for building alliances (DeScioli and Kurzban 2012, 2009). The alliance-building model is distinct from the theory of reciprocal altruism, as it is not based on exchange, but rather on concerns about interpersonal conflict.

These concerns are a central feature of the alliance-building model, but do not feature prominently in reciprocal altruism models of human friendship.

The central premise of the alliance model is that humans habitually get into conflicts with one another. Having a supportive network of alliances is crucial to successfully navigating these problems and emerging on the “winning” side of direct interpersonal conflicts. Crucially, the likelihood of winning such conflicts depends not only on one’s own wit, agility, and physical formidability, but also on one’s ability to mobilize other individuals—friends—to support one in such conflicts.

The alliance-building model of friendship proposes that humans have evolved computational systems dedicated to cognitively representing different friends’ degree of loyalty to oneself, because those who are most loyal are most likely to provide support in future disputes. DeScioli and Kurzban (2012) insightfully note that “individuals frequently have relationships with both sides in a conflict, particu-
larly because human social networks are locally dense” (p. 216). This suggests that ancestral humans needed to be able to determine whom they would support in any possible pairwise within-group conflict—including one between two close friends.
As the authors suggest, one way to do this is to rank one’s allies, prioritizing certain friendships over others.

The most important aspect of this hypothesis is that an individual (let’s call him Tom) should count among his closest friends those who rank him as one of their closest friends. The logic is that those who consider Tom a very close friend are those who are most likely to be fiercely loyal to him and support him in future

disputes. This leads to the central prediction derived from the alliance-building hypothesis: other individuals’ ranking of Tom should be the strongest predictor of Tom’s ranking of these same individuals. By contrast, the reciprocal exchange hypothesis predicts that the friends who provide the largest benefits should be ranked highest.

And still other non-evolutionary perspectives contend that the key predictors of friendship rankings will be proximity, similarity, and familiarity (e.g., see Berscheid et al. 1971; Byrne et al. 1968; Singh and Ho 2000).

In three different samples that measured a host of different variables, DeScioli and Kurzban (2009) found that, as predicted, Tom’s (perceived) rank in his friends’ lists was the strongest predictor of his own friend rankings. Interestingly, consistent but weaker effects were also found for benefits, similarity, and secret-sharing.

These findings are intriguing, since they suggest that perceived friendship ranking (which the researchers view as a proxy for loyalty in future disputes) is a more important determinant of friendship closeness than a variety of other predictors put forth by alternative evolutionary and non-evolutionary models. However, the alliance-building and reciprocal exchange hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and friendship may serve multiple functions.

Positive Externalities

Although reciprocal exchange may be one viable route for human friendship to evolve, altruism in the context of friendship often appears distinctly non-reciprocal in nature. Some scientists argue against the idea that friendship is based on explicit reciprocity, because many individuals report feeling good assisting a close friend, and report no desire for compensation or future reward (Tooby and Cosmides 1996; DeScioli and Kurzban 2012). Rather, an emphasis on returning favors is indicative of a relationship that is not close; repayment of debts and favors is not characteristic of close friendships (Argyle and Henderson 1984).

Consistent with this, people perceive a lack of friendship when someone insists on the return of a favor (Shackelford and Buss 1996). At least at the level of conscious awareness, then, reciprocal altruism is not a defining characteristic of friendship.
Tooby and Cosmides (1996) propose an alternate model for the evolution of friendship mechanisms based on the notion of positive externalities—unintentional benefits that individuals deliver to others without any cost to themselves (Tooby and Cosmides 1996).

To illustrate the idea of a positive externality, imagine that you and your friend both need to go to the grocery store, but your friend does not have a car.
By allowing your friend to ride along in your car, you provide her with a benefit and yet you incur no additional cost; you were already going to the store. Traditionally, however, this would not be classified as true biological altruism, as the classical definition of the concept of altruism in biology requires that the actor pay a cost in the delivery of benefits to another individual.

Tooby and Cosmides (1996) make the insightful point, however, that the less costly it is to deliver benefits to others, the more widespread we should expect such benefit-bestowing behavior to be. Furthermore, once benefit-bestowing adaptations of any kind evolved, selection would have refined these adaptations to minimize their costs to the actor (Tooby and Cosmides 1996).

This positive externalities perspective suggests that a large class of altruistic behavior may have thus far gone largely unrecognized and uninvestigated. Indeed, adaptations to deliver or reap the benefits of positive externalities may be woven into the fabric of human friendship, but they remain uncharted territory and represent a fascinating direction for future research.

Friendships and Maximizing Happiness

Friendship quality is predictive of happiness across age groups and cultures (Brannan et al. 2013; Chan and Lee 2006; Demir et al. 2013; Holder and Coleman 2009; Hussong 2000). However, because the members of a friendship dyad frequently have conflicting goals, such relationships often result in the intentional or unintentional obstruction of one another’s goals.

This strategic interference (Buss 1989) underscores the potential for intrasexual and intersexual competition in human friendship, and highlights the unfortunate fact that friendships can often lead to negative experiences such as conflict (Hartup et al. 1988; Laursen 1995), rivalry (Burndt 2002), and even betrayal (Shackelford and Buss 1996).
We think that an evolutionary perspective can shed unique light on how humans may be able to reap the benefits of friendships while simultaneously minimizing the costs such relationships impose.

Future research would profit from an investigation of the specific costs and benefits of friendship that affect overall happiness, but at present it seems safe to infer that the costs inherent in friendships have a negative impact on the relationship and resultant happiness levels. In this section, we share evolutionarily inspired ideas for enhancing friendships and maximizing their happiness yield.
Close meaningful friendships are often hampered by the costs that such dyadic relationships can impose. But what if these costs were absent? Might it be possible, for example, for an individual’s friendships to be free of intrasexual rivalry and sexual deception?

research suggests that friendships that cross sexual orientation may be unique in this regard (Grigoriou 2004; Hopcke and Rafaty 1999).

Specifically, friendships between heterosexual women and homosexual men may enable the beneficial exchange of mating-related benefits without the potential for the typical costs that plague heterosexual same- and cross-sex friendships (Russell et al. 2013).

This friendship type is distinct from other friendships, because heterosexual women and homosexual men are neither rivals in the mating domain nor potential romantic partners. In the absence of intrasexual mating rivalry and concealed mating motivations, these friendships are often marked by a level of trust and support not found in other types of friendship (Grigoriou 2004; Hopcke and Rafaty 1999; Malone 1980).

It is heartening to find that friendships free of these costs are associated with such positive relationship outcomes. In this light, we suggest strategies that individuals can follow in order to increase the benefits and happiness they can draw from their friendships while simultaneously minimizing the costs of competition, deception, and strategic interference.

The Banker’s Paradox and Becoming Irreplaceable

Just as banks prefer to lend money to people with minimal credit risk, and are least likely to provide loans to those who are most in need, we might expect humans to be (paradoxically) least likely to invest in individuals in their hour of greatest need—when they are sick, have poor prospects, or otherwise appear unlikely to be able to return the favor in the future.

The banker’s paradox describes this social dilemma: it is profitable to invest in others who are in good condition and are able to return benefits, and to discount the needs of those who are in poor condition and least likely to be able to repay the actor in the future. This unfortunate payoff matrix would have led our ancestors to avoid precisely those who required the most help.

The consequence of this logic is that the ruthless currency of selection would have favored psychological mechanisms that led individuals to desert each other during times of dire need. In short, the banker’s paradox predicts that people may be least likely to befriend or help those who are poor credit risks—those that show the greatest signs of urgent need (Tooby and Cosmides 1996).
One key solution to this problem may be for individuals to strive to become irreplaceable and indispensable to their friends (Tooby and Cosmides 1996). Tooby and Cosmides (1996) illustrate several strategies by which an individual might become irreplaceable.

For example, one can promote a reputation that highlights one’s unique or exceptional attributes, cultivate specialized skills possessed by no one else within one’s social group, demonstrate one’s unwavering loyalty, or avoid social groups in which one’s unique attributes are not valued.

Cultivating a unique set of skills or benefits that nobody else in one’s in-group possesses may be critical to the solution of the banker’s paradox, as it dramatically lowers the likelihood of desertion in times of vulnerability and despair (Tooby and Cosmides 1996).


More information: Nathan W. Hudson et al, Are we happier with others? An investigation of the links between spending time with others and subjective well-being., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2020). DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000290

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