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Health & Wellness

Are We Happier With Friends Or Family? It May Depend On How We Spend That Time Together

Photo of young Child & Mom holding hands.

Meaningful social relationships can enhance our overall well-being, and previous research has found that people report feeling happier with friends than they do with romantic partners or children.

A new study from Southern Methodist University homes in on how the types of interactions we have with the people closest to us can affect our well-being, evaluating whether being with friends really makes people happier than spending time with spouses or children.

"When you look at the past literature, some of the previous studies that have been done might give you the impression that people don't really enjoy their family as much as their friends," said Nathan Hudson, an assistant professor of psychology at SMU who coauthored the study. "Our study suggests that that's not necessarily the case.... When you just look at the mere presence of family and friends, they predict similar levels of happiness."

Hudson says the happiness we feel in the moment may have more to do with the different types of activities we do with friends and family members as opposed to the relationships themselves.

Researchers surveyed more than 400 Michigan residents, asking participants to reflect on time spent with their friends and family members, the types of activities they did together and how they felt after these interactions. Respondents reported doing more enjoyable things with friends, like socializing, relaxing and sharing a meal. They tended to do similar activities with romantic partners. When it came to children, people reported spending more time doing less enjoyable activities, like housework and commuting.

"It turns out that when we separate out how much of your emotion is attributable to the people who are present and how much of that emotion is attributable to the activities you're performing... family and friends have a very similar affect," Hudson said. "Both family and friends are correlated with greater happiness in the moment and to a similar extent."

Hudson said this research points to an optimistic view of family relationships.

"One implication of our study might be that if you just want to feel happier in the moment while around your partner and children, then by all means, do pleasurable activities with those people, because those activities can boost your positive affect and reduce your negative affect, in addition to the people who are present," he said.