Social Benefits

Identifying the Significance of Adult Friendships

Throughout the years, popular culture has given us a number of tributes to friendship – from Dionne Warwick’s song “That’s What Friends Are For” and Maeve Binchy’s novel Circle of Friends, to the hit TV sitcom Friends. A quick search on Pinterest or Google will return a wide variety of quotes, both inspirational and cynical. So when GSEP psychology professors Shelly Harrell and Edward Shafranske began their research through the newly-developed Center for the Study and Promotion of Adult Friendship, they were surprised to learn that there was a large gap in the existing research on friendships.

“When we reviewed the literature on friendship, we noted that most research and even most theory has focused on either friendship in childhood, friendship in adolescence and college age, or on romantic, intimate relationships with adults,” Shafranske said. “It’s rather interesting because we know from other areas in the field and sociology that friendships can have a great deal of effect on us as individuals.”

Through the center, Harrell, Shafranske, and their research team aim to look at the potential effects, positive and negative, of casual and close friendships in an adult’s life.

Their mission is twofold: the center seeks to advance knowledge about adult friendship, and apply that information to promote the building and maintaining of those relationships.

“The first thing we’re working on in the center is assessing friendship by getting a better sense of how people understand friendship, what they consider friendship, and the contexts in which friendships develop,” Harrell said. “Then we’re going to look at the different qualities of friendships and the impact of being in these relationships.”

Some of the other questions the center’s research hopes to answer include:

  • How do adult friendships change and sustain over time?
  • What are the typical strains in relationships and how are those strains addressed?
  • Does the meaning and expression of adult friendship vary within dimensions of diversity such as gender, ethnicity, age, and socioeconomic status?
  • What is the impact if a close friendship is lost for a number of reasons?
  • What is the potential impact on one’s health in general, physical health, sense of well-being, or life satisfaction?

In answering these questions, the team will conduct a number of studies including surveys, interviews, and the review and synthesis of empirical and theoretical literature. The first major study, which surveyed 2,000 adults across the country, was recently completed. The responses provided information on the participants’ experiences of friendship, their attitudes toward friendship, and the personal impacts of friendship in their lives.

“From what we have seen in our initial review of the literature, this was one of the largest studies of its kind,” Shafranske said. “Once we’ve analyzed data, our next step will be refinement of the research instrument to empirically assess adult friendship.”

Harrell noted that it is only recently that there has been focused attention on studying happiness or life satisfaction in psychology. She added that, historically, psychological research in mental health has focused on psychopathology or the negative expressions and effects of human behavior and emotion. Currently, her research focuses on positive well-being in the context of cultural diversity, with an emphasis on how psychologically-informed interventions can enhance individual, relational, and collective well-being.

“The center’s work is going to contribute to an emerging body of literature in positive psychology,” Shafranske said. “We’re going to be looking at the enhancement of human life.”

Harrell and Shafranske eagerly anticipate the practical applications of the research. For example, if research reveals that supporting friendships in churches, synagogues, or religious institutions had benefits in terms of health and life satisfaction and meaning and purpose, then programs could be developed within those communities to enhance the lives of their congregants.

“Another great application could be in the workplace,” Shafranske said. “If friendships in the workplace could enhance productivity and career satisfaction, then future action research could be developed where companies and businesses might actively encourage friendship because it could potentially benefit their employees as well as increase the bottom line.”

More information on the Center for the Study and Promotion of Adult Friendship will be available later this year.

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