Popularity? Not Always a Good Thing. Just Ask Science.

While being popular in high school might be every teenager’s goal, belonging to a tight-knit group may pay off more in the long run.

The types of friendships you form during your teenage years can affect your mental health in adulthood, according to a new study. And those with a few, high-quality best friendships grew up to be happier in their mid-20s than those who were popular among their peers.

How the study worked

Researchers from the University of Virginia examined 169 racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse adolescents over a period of 10 years, from the time they were 15 until they were 25. The results were published in the journal Child Development.

The study authors checked in on the participants each year to assess the state of their friendships and their mental health. Researchers asked the study participants questions about who their close friends were, as well as investigated issues like anxiety, social acceptance, self worth and symptoms of depression. The authors also interviewed the participants’ close friends on how they viewed their bonds with the study volunteers.

Friendship quality and popularity were measured by the reports from participants’ friends and peers. The study authors defined high-quality friendships as close friendships that involved psychological attachment and allowed for intimate exchanges. Popularity was determined by how many of the teens’ classmates ranked them as someone they wanted to hang out with.

Those with high-quality friendships at age 15 seemed to fare better when they were 25 in terms of wellbeing. The participants with a few tight BFFs had lower social anxiety, increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression. Those who were considered more popular by their peers showed higher levels of social anxiety as adults.

“Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships.”
– Joseph Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia

What this all means

The results are a prime example of the importance of friendships on longterm mental health, according to study co-author Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” Allen said in a statement. “Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later.”

It’s important to point out here that the sample size of the study was somewhat small, so it’s unclear if this can be applied to a general population. However, previous research shows that friendships during adolescent periods can improve physical and emotional wellness. And friendships in general are good for your health: Studies indicate they reduce stress, help you cope with trauma and encourage you make better lifestyle choices.

When it comes down to it, there’s power in close supportive bonds ― especially when compared to adoration without any real connection.

Let’s hear it for your besties.