Why Do Our High School Friends Matter So Much To Our Mental Health?


High school is terrible for pretty much everybody, even if you can get an amazing dunk mixtape out of it. And part of that is the discovery of one of the worst feelings of adulthood, the anxiety of worrying that you don’t fit in, or that the majority of people don’t care if you exist. So, a study that arrived last Monday offers good news: It’s not being popular that keeps up your mental health, it’s having a few close, strong friends. But why?

The study, published in Childhood Development, is fascinating in of itself. It followed 169 high school students across a ten year period, and studied their mental health based on the strength of their closest friendship over time. The stronger a close friendship was, the less anxiety and depression the subjects experienced, and the better grasp they had of their self-worth. Being popular, by contrast, didn’t show any change in this data. It didn’t matter if you were having lunch in the hall to avoid choosing a table or sitting at the head of the cool kids, what mattered over the long term was having a few close friends. Being high on the social pecking order didn’t.

Surprisingly, this might be the least damning scientific study about high school popularity. Granted, you might wonder if scientists are just a wee bit biased against the mean girls of the world, since teenage scientists tend to be on the receiving end of their barbs. But there’s evidence piling up that being a Plastic is bad for your mental health. Mitch Prinstein, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, broke down some of the research for Teen Vogue:

The kids who had the highest status grew up more likely to suffer from relationship problems, addictions, anxiety, and depression. Interviews with formerly popular teens reveal that they remain fixated on popularity long after high school is over. They pick who to date based on potential mates’ status, they assume their failures are because they aren’t popular enough, and they are aggressive towards their co-workers to seem higher on the status hierarchy. Even their friends in adulthood don’t like them very much.

In short, if a coworker seems like they never got over high school? They probably haven’t.

By contrast, the other form of popularity, which Prinstein sums up as “likability,” is way better for your health. If you’re somebody people enjoy being around, want to talk to and hang out with, that’s better for mental health, both yours and theirs. This seems to play into the fact that humans are geared to be social, to get along with other humans. It’s a need as fundamental to us as food or shelter, and depriving ourselves of it can have more subtle, but just as pronounced effects. Really, this study may turn out to be just that the longer we have good, close friendships, the better off we are mentally.

Increasingly, we’re seeing this play out in social media, which tends to emphasize status (how many likes you get, how many comments you accrue) versus likability. Part of the reason social media may well be driving us all up the wall is that there’s not really a way to sort people who just hammer “Like” right down their timeline versus people who genuinely care about what you have to say and what you think. It’s very easy for algorithms to quantify status, after all. But a computer can’t tell you if people really like you.

The takeaway from all this, in the end, is that genuine, deep emotional human connection matters, and that status, in the end, doesn’t. Now get to work on a time machine, science, so we can go back and explain this to our teenaged selves!