Most of the foundational research on friendship groups has focused on middle-class, Caucasian post-secondary students.3 While both female and male participants are included in research, many categories of friendships are underrepresented, such as non-heterosexual friendships, non-white friendships, eldery friendships, and differences between female and male friendships. As a result, contemporary research has shifted to exploring unique intersections and how they influence friendships.
Gender and Race
Since people belonging to gender or sexual minorities may face increased familial rejection and estrangement, they often surround themselves with “chosen families”: friends who fulfill emotional needs and provide support.6 Within same sex-friendships, research has found that women’s friendships are usually characterized by emotional sharing and self-disclosure, while men’s friendships revolve around shared activities and friendly competition.1 Having cross-racial friends has been found to enhance individual and collective cultural competence.7
Research on elderly women discovered that those who lived alone participated in senior center activities more frequently.8 They created social networks outside of their center environment, emphasizing the importance of a strong social support network for the emotional well-being of older women living alone relative to older married women.
Personality and Identity
Contemporary research has also focused on friendship groups in the context of personality and identity. The dark triad refers to three personality traits:
- Narcissism: an excessive self-admiration and self-involvement that results in ignoring the needs of others;
- Machiavellianism: thinking of oneself as smart enough to exploit others; and
- Psychopathy: excessive thrill-seeking and antisocial behavior.1
These traits are referred to as “the dark triad” because they all result in disadvantageous behaviors toward others, such as arrogance, manipulation, hostility, and low levels of agreeableness. These personality traits tend to have corrosive effects on friendships.
Contrary to the characteristics of the dark triad, our relational self-construal is the extent to which we think of ourselves as interdependent. The higher our relational self-construal, the more motivated we are to support others and be a dependable friend.
Plenty of research has examined friendship development across the life cycle.1 Preschool children have rudimentary friendships, but success in childhood friendships paves the way for better adult outcomes. As children’s cognitive development deepens, allowing them to become increasingly appreciative of others’ perspectives and needs, their interpersonal needs shift from acceptance in the early elementary years, to intimacy in preadolescence, to sexuality in the teen years. Adolescents spend less time with their families and more time with their friends, so they increasingly turn to friends for satisfaction of their attachment needs.
As young adults head to university and often move away, satisfaction with their social networks tends to drop, but rises again by the end of the year. After university, young adults tend to interact with fewer friends but their remaining friendships grow deeper. Couples in their midlife phase tend to see friends less, but their overall social networks increase due to the addition of their partners’ families. Socioemotional selectivity theory posits that elderly people have smaller social networks since their interpersonal goals shift from pursuing future-oriented goals to emotional fulfillment. While younger people seek out many social interactions to ensure increased access to opportunities (i.e. employment and meeting significant others), elderly people prioritize quality over quantity.
A popular area of current friendship research is its relationship to happiness. Among university undergraduates, those with strong romantic relationships and close friendships are happier than those without such attachments.9 Having happy friends is also beneficial: each happy friend increases our chances of happiness by 15%, and each happy friend-of-a-friend increases our chances of happiness by 10%, even if we’ve never met that person.1
On the other hand, each unhappy friend we have decreases our likelihood of happiness by 7%.1
Returning to the relationship between romance and happiness, friend groups can either make or break our romantic relationships through approval or disapproval. In fact, the more our friends like our romantic partners, the more committed we will be to them.