For over 30 years I have been self-employed and for the most part, worked alone. Although there are many advantages to being a self-employed writer, I’ve never had the luxury of meeting co-workers after work or sharing life’s ups and downs with fellow employees. And because I am childfree, I also never bonded with other moms over the joys and challenges of raising kids. But since the media recently exploded with news bits equating loneliness and isolation with such health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making new friends is now a priority. Not only is it SMART to recognize that loneliness is a potential life hazard, it is also beneficial to come up with ways to reverse the trend.
If you’ve ever felt lonely you likely know why it can be such a problem. According to research done by AARP, over 35% of people 45 and over are lonely. Plus, those between 45 and 65 are considered the loneliest people in the United States. Why does that matter? With more and more people remaining single, living alone and being isolated, the mental, emotional, and physical repercussions are dramatic. Research shows that:
- Loneliness raises blood pressure and dumps stress hormones into your bloodstream leading to tissue damage and all forms of diseases including heart disease.
- Loneliness can reprogram genes and attack immune systems making you more vulnerable to infectious diseases and viruses—yep, that means everything from a cold to HIV.
- Isolation increases your risk for diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. That means that lonely people in midlife are more susceptible to memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
- Loneliness can keep you from sleeping well and sends your system into hyper-alert with stress hormones flooding your body for most of the day.
- Lonely people over 60 experience a 45% greater likelihood of dying.
As author, Barbara Bradley Hagerty says in her book, Life Reimagined, “I once believed that having friends was a luxury. Now I know that losing friends can be lethal…maintaining relationships with friends, family or work colleagues increases your odds of survival by 50 percent.” Wow!
Backing that up, a study done on over 1,500 people in Australia shows that those who had a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die than those with few friends. What made this study so interesting is that this increased longevity had nothing to do with how close you were to family and/or your children. It was all about friends.
Okay, so anyone who is lonely knows how it feels and likely wants to do something about it. The obvious benefits of having a strong circle of friends, especially as we age, are:
- The boost to our physical health in seen and unseen ways.
- The boost to our mental health in seen and unseen ways.
- It lengthens our lives.
- It preserves our memory.
- It can help our careers or business.
- It helps to promote the purpose and meaning of our lives.
- It “gentles” the aging process.
- It’s fun!
So, while the advantages are pretty clear, why don’t we all do our very best to hang on to our friendships when we do have them? According to Bradley Hagerty, “…friendships also demand effort, because they are so easy to neglect…. the strength of a friendship lies in its voluntary nature, so does its fragility.” With friendships, it sometimes might seem easier to walk away when the going gets tough—or perhaps even more problematic, we become apathetic and just let them fade away without effort because we get busy or distracted.
In other words, if we get lazy about our friendships, ignore the value, or overestimate the “investment” they require, we may find ourselves with no one to call when we really need help or comfort. If that happens, we’ve done ourselves a big disservice. As Bradley Hagerty concludes, “All the research converges on one unshakeable imperative: If you want to live a long and healthy life, invest in friends, particularly at midlife.”
The good news is that there are some simple actions we can take to continue to make (and keep) friends no matter what our age. They are:
- Get married, get a roommate you like or find someone to love. Studies show that people who have at least one other person they can count on feel less isolated.
- Get a dog! Having a pet can lead to connecting with other people (pet owners) as well as provide social support for the owner.
- Attend a spiritual, religious or philosophical organization on a regular basis.
- Volunteering helps to connect us to others with the similar values.
- Join local clubs or groups with similar interests or values. Yoga or book clubs are great examples.
- Hobbies or sports that you enjoy are great ways to connect with others. Pickleball anyone?
- Help put together a meet-up or group of people who have passions or interests like you do. (see below for my recent meet-up with fellow bloggers!)
I get that it isn’t always easy to put ourselves out there when we feel shy or unsure of how we will be received. And as is my case, sometimes being alone is just a habit we’ve become accustomed to living. It can also be intimidating at the start if you are making a new connection all by yourself—surely having a friend or partner go with you the first time helps to break the ice. But the results are in. For those of us who want to remain happy and healthy in the years to come, expanding and deepening our friendships matters even more than what we eat or how much exercise we get. Perhaps it is SMART to put growing our friendships at the top of any to-do list we might have in the years to come.
So, what does a writer/blogger like myself do to stay connected to people? One unique thing you can do is put together a meetup with other writers/bloggers (or anyone else you share common interests with.) During the last two months, I have been fortunate to get together with several women who write and blog. While these women don’t live near me, they came to town to get together and talk about something very near and dear to our hearts. Oh, and to have fun too. A special thanks to Donna Connolly for putting us all together. Because these women are uniquely special in their own ways, I invite you to check out their blogs in case you may want to connect with them the way I have. All of us plan to write a blog post (and post it today) about our meetup in a way that fits our personality and blog. Please pop over to each of their sites and leave a comment just to say Hi!
Donna Connolly who writes at Retirement Reflections lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada where she and her husband “reflect” on their retirement life when not busy traveling and meeting up with other bloggers.
Liesbet Collaert is originally from Belgium but now she and her husband Mark travel around the U.S. in their RV doing house and pet sitting AND writing. On her blog Roaming About she encourages us all to live a life less ordinary.
Janis Heppell lives in the San Diego area of California and on her blog, Retiremently Challenged she writes about the joys and challenges of the retirement process along with her frequent travels and photography.
Terri Webster-Schrandt is from Sacramento who teaches part-time at the local university, loves to paddleboard, and shares thoughts and photos about life and staying active and happy on her blog Second Wind Leisure.
Okay, your turn. What is one thing you are doing to connect with and maintain your friendships?