If you’re an adult, you likely remember your high school days as wanting to be one of the popular kids, and you’re certainly not alone. Countless movies, televisions shows, books and songs have all been made about trying to fit in with the “cool kids” at school. The stereotype is that those who are popular in high school have it made, and end up getting just about anything they want later in life. If you’re in high school now and having trouble fitting in with the popular group, a new study says not to worry.
At the University of Virginia, a research team followed a group of 15 year olds in high school from a wide variety of backgrounds, and monitored them through the time they turned 25 years old. Throughout the course of the study, researchers asked the students about their levels of anxiety or depression, self esteem and how well they thought they fit in at school, including whether or not they were in the “popular” group.
It turned out that the popular students weren’t always the happiest. In fact, the authors of the study say that the students who put more of a focus on trying to fit in with a wide range of their peers were more likely to have social anxiety as adults. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those that focused on developing close friendships and not worrying about their social standing showed fewer signs of anxiety or depression.
“Youth with higher levels of attachment to their best friends appear to have better psychological health, psychosocial adjustment and even more adaptive stress response during adolescence,” the study says. “In general, adolescents with high quality close friendships report higher rates of overall happiness than those without.” This wasn’t a small study, either, as nearly 170 students were monitored in the decade-long study.
One person in particular that wasn’t surprised about the results of the study was Rachel Narr. Narr, the lead author of the study from the University of Virginia said that she experienced close friendships while in high school. One friend came to mind for Narr, who said that “I suppose in many ways she is the inspiration for a lot of my work on teen friendships.” This study, though, has been the most eye opening.
Narr said that making close friends as a teenager establishes how you develop relationships as an adult, because as a teen that’s “when the first major non-family relationships and attachments are formed.” She went on to say that “Experiencing very positive (relationships) at that point in life may set the stage in a powerful way. Also, adolescence is a major time of life where people are developing their self concepts, so having a close friend who helps you feel good about yourself, trusts you, likes you and who you like and trust, might really set people up for positive change.”
Going back to the popular kids in school, what exactly determines their popularity? According to Narr, the study asked students who they thought were 10 of the most popular among the 169 students selected. The names that popped up the most on that top 10 were considered to be the popular group, while they were also asked who their closest friends were, regardless of whether or not they were in that top 10.
Each year, the study asked students to come up with a new top 10 to see any changes in social standing, if they were still best friends with the person from the year before and how they felt about their own mental health. The students that showed up in top 10 on a yearly basis were much more likely to have social anxiety (at least self reported) than those that maintained the same group of best friends throughout the decade.
Even though the study does raise a lot of intriguing questions, there are a lot of different factors in play that make the conclusion non-concrete. For instance, not all friendships can be beneficial even if they are close, and it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily set up for success as an adult whether you’re popular or not. The study also started in the late 1990s, when there was no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or anything like that.
Over the course of her several studies on youth, though, Narr and other professors tend to agree that making close friends at a teenager helps you as an adult, which includes better romantic relationships and far better performance in social settings. So if you’re not among the popular group (or weren’t while in school), but still have close friends, there’s a solid chance that you’re doing just fine!