Read about the keys to happiness, and you'll hear that the most important key to happiness is to figure out how to make friends and build good relationships.

Fair enough. There's science to back it up. However, the downside is that for some people, making friends just isn't all that easy. And now, there's a new study that suggests that even just thinking you don't have enough friendships can spark a downward spiral and negatively affect your life and happiness.

It goes like this: People read the science of happiness, or hear it summarized, and come to believe that they need close friends in order to be happy and successful. But then they take a "friend inventory."

They start to think that other people have more close friends than they do, and if "they feel like the gap is too big, it's almost as if they give up and feel it isn't even worth trying," said the lead author of a recent study, Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. (The study was published last month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.)

Once they give up, they fall into a vicious circle of inwardness and self-doubt, and perception becomes reality. They worry that they don't have enough friends, and if they worry enough--they actually make fewer friends and suffer as a result.

The Harvard Grant Study

To understand the context, we need to go back to the findings on friendship itself.

Sure, it makes sense that good relationships would help people to be happier, but there's some good data to back it up. In fact, a Harvard psychiatrist who is the current custodian of the Harvard Grant Study which followed the lives of graduates of Harvard University beginning in 1938--and in the case of those that are still alive is still following them--put it this way:

"The lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

Diving deeper, the Harvard psychologist, Dr. Robert Waldinger, said the Harvard study suggests that people who don't have close friendships have worse health, less brain function in middle age, and die sooner than people who are less lonely. 

Again--good insights that can lead to some smart advice, unless people naturally begin to obsess about it.

Making friends--or not

The more recent study--the one from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin--also started with college students.

Researchers interviewed nearly 1,100 freshmen at the University of British Columbia in Canada for the study, asking them how many friends they had made since September, and also asking them to estimate whether they or their peers had more friends.

Only 31 percent of those surveyed said they believed they had more friends than their peers. (Sharp-eyed readers will notice that it's statistically impossible for that perception to be accurate.) Meantime, just under half of those surveyed, 48 percent, said they were sure that others had more friendships than they did. 

So, the researchers then followed up with 389 of the students who said they thought their peers had more friends than they did, and found that they ultimately had "lower levels of wellbeing," according to a press release summary that accompanied the study.

Further emphasizing the impact of people's beliefs that they don't have as many friends as their peers, the study found that "students who thought their peers had moderately more friends than they did at the beginning of the year reported making more friends compared to students who thought their peers had many more friends." (Emphasis added.)

"We know the size of your social networks has a significant effect on happiness and wellbeing, but our research shows that even mere beliefs you have about your peers' social networks has an impact on your happiness," Whillans said.

Quality over quantity

The massive irony running through all of this is that it's not the number of friendships we have that makes a difference in health and happiness. Instead, it's the quality of our relationships that actually matters.

This is borne out in many studies, including the Harvard Grant Study that started the whole thing. Thus, the students who reported that they thought they had many fewer friends than their peers might actually have been well-positioned for greater health and happiness, even if they were right about that--if their fewer friends were actually deep and warm relationships.

"It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health," Waldinger said. "High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective," according to Waldinger.

So don't worry about how many friends you can count; instead, nurture the friendships you do have. You'll be better off, happier, and healthier.