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Friends key to well-being - but cyber pals need not apply

An Instagram photo is shared with Facebook. A new study says increasing the number of your friends dramatically affects your well-being - but online friends don’t count.

Karly Domb Sadof/AP

Want to boost your sense of well-being? Make new friends. But they must be in-person friends, not virtual ones.

Doubling the number of friends in real life has an equivalent effect on well-being as a 50-per-cent increase in income, a new paper based on a Canadian survey shows.

It finds the number of friends is positively correlated with subjective well-being, even after controlling for income, demographic factors and personality differences. By contrast, the size of online networks has little effect on people's sense of well-being.

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The findings, based also on the European Social Survey, "confirm that real-life social networks...are positive and substantial contributing factor to subjective well-being," say John Helliwell and Haifang Huang, the study's authors and professors at the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta, respectively.

The importance of friends is greater for people who are not married or in a civil partnership, the study says. In fact, friends and spouses seem to provide similar happiness benefits.

Past studies have shown that having a close friend raises scores of life evaluation and that happiness is also linked to the frequency at which people socialization with their chums. Less research, however, has been conducted on the impact of online connections. This week's study shows networks of online friends have "zero or negative" correlations with subjective wellbeing.

The paper, entitled "Comparing the happiness effects of real and online friends," was published this week by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research and must be purchased. It is based on a recent Canadian survey with a sample of 5,000 people that compares in-person and online social networks.

As an aside, one part of the 2011 poll that the study was based on asked Canadians what the happiest job in the country is. The response? Zamboni drivers and lumberjacks.

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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