Having Young Friends (or Much Older Friends) Has Major Mental Health Benefits
Improved outlook and less loneliness are just a couple of them.
As a child, I learned the value of interacting with people of all ages through church. I’d join my parents in service on Sundays and Bible study on Wednesdays, as well as occasionally volunteering at the church’s soup kitchen. Through these experiences, I established lifelong bonds with parishioners both younger and older than me. To this day, these friendships (known as “intergenerational friendships”) challenge me to see life through a new lens and embrace the unknown. As such, I’ve always wondered whether there are also scientifically-proven health benefits — physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise. It turns out that the answer is yes. Here’s what current research says about intergenerational friendships and the ways they might enhance your perspective on life.
The Importance of Intergenerational Friendships
Having a friend that you can always count on for love and companionship is priceless. In fact, science shows that strong friendships are a necessity for reducing loneliness and stress, and aiding personal growth. It’s natural to make friends with people your age, often referred to as age homophily, because you’re at similar stages of life. But despite the prevalence of age homophily, research shows that expanding the age range of your friend circle and forming intergenerational bonds has wonderful health benefits.
In a 2019 AARP survey that asked 1,500 adults about their friendships, roughly 37 percent of respondents reported having a close friend who is at least 15 years older or younger than them. According to the survey, these friendships developed in three key places: work (26 percent), neighborhood (12 percent), and church or temple (11 percent). They also yielded long-term bonds: 45 percent lasted 10 years or more, and 20 percent lasted over two decades.
A key reason why intergenerational friendships have longevity is because they promote feelings of belonging. Research published in the journal Social Inclusion explored this phenomenon in 31 teenagers in Finland and 23 mature adults, all of whom had intergenerational friendships. Data consisted of interviews wherein researchers asked participants about their personal experiences and views on these bonds.
Researchers found that participants enjoy having an intergenerational friendship for the following reasons:
- This type of friendship is uniquely fun and delivers compassion and support in unexpected ways.
- An intergenerational friendship provides greater confidential emotional support than a traditional, peer-to-peer type that’s more restrictive and unreliable.
- Participants noted their younger or older friend provided access to a range of resources including practical advice and physical. (However, this wasn’t a sole motivation to form an intergenerational friendship.)
The authors concluded that intergenerational friendships are more inclusive than their age homophily counterparts, and that the means by which these friendships provide support, care, and trust are different than those provided by peer-to-peer relations. Overall, venturing outside of your age group to make new friends may seem daunting — but it truly pays off.
This research shatters the belief that people of different ages can’t form meaningful friendships. Though generation gaps related to subjects like politics, work-life balance, and parenting may feel wide, Catherine Elliott O’Dare, PhD, tells The Guardian that finding common interests is the first step toward creating a sincere friendship with someone outside your age group. “If you find a like-minded person — and that’s a real gift in life — age doesn’t matter. If anything, it can lend an extra dimension of interest to what is essentially an enjoyable relationship,” Dr. O’Dare promises.