The stereotype of older adults as sad and lonely may be well off the mark – at least when they’re compared to their younger counterparts, according to a new study. 

While younger adults may cultivate numerous connections with friends, families and acquaintances through online social networks, they may not be happier than older adults who have smaller circles of face-to-face relationships, the researchers reported.

“[T]he research shows that older adults’ smaller networks didn’t undermine social satisfaction and well-being. In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Ph.D., of the University of Leeds, UK.

Study participants reported the number of people with whom they had regular contact in the past six months. These were grouped into close and peripheral relationships from various social networks (such as friends, family, and neighbors, coworkers and service providers). Contact was face-to-face, or by phone, email or internet. Participants also rated their feelings of well-being over the past 30 days.

The research team found that social satisfaction and well-being was associated with the number of close friends, not the number of total relationships – no matter the age. In addition, older age was associated with better well-being, and well-being was linked to a positive perception of relationship quality. 

“Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” concluded Bruine de Bruin. “If you feel lonely, it may be more helpful to make a positive connection with a friend than to try and seek out new people to meet.”

Full findings appear in the journal Psychology and Aging.