There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship. – Italian theologian, Thomas Aquinas
It turns out that the key to happiness and longevity is not your career success or having a favorite hobby or even being healthy and fit. Although they’re important, the most influential factor is having close relationships. And if you’re retired, you may miss the people you worked with as much as or more than the work itself. According to an 80-year study titled the Harvard Study of Adult Development, “People who are more connected to family, to friends, and to community, are happier and physically healthier than people who are less well connected”. Although the study started with an all white male population, it has since broadened to include a more diverse group of people. Still, men generally have a smaller social network than women.
Why is social connection as essential to our wellbeing as food, water, physical activity, or having a roof over our heads? Because humans have historically needed to rely on each other for survival. From an evolutionary perspective, “to feel safe and protected, our ancestors formed social connections by working in groups, sharing food, and helping each other”. People today remain wired for that connection and it becomes just as important to our wellbeing as we age.
I consider myself an introvert and can feel overstimulated and uncomfortable around large, unfamiliar groups of people. I prefer meaningful interactions with a close friend or a small group of friends. I also don’t see happiness as socially determined, as I find pleasure doing solitary activities (e.g. walking, hiking, reading, writing, cooking, or just relaxing listening to music or a podcast). However, some of my most memorable times in life have been in the company of family, friends, colleagues, and my Be Resilient community. And when times are difficult, having a close friend who will lend an ear, or being with a group of friends that can lift your spirits, does wonders for your well-being. On the other hand, lacking social connections and support from friends can be detrimental to your health. If you’re interested to learn more about the health risks of loneliness and social isolation, please click on this link.
Older adults are especially at risk for loneliness and social isolation, because they’re more likely to be living alone due to the death of a spouse or the loss of family members or friends. Also, if you’re in poor health or have a disability, you’re more likely to not leave your house and be socially isolated. Robert Waldinger, director of the Adult Development Study and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says the best advice he can give is to “take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years, because you might.” Though we may be tempted to distract ourselves by watching hours of TV or numb the pain of loneliness by using drugs or alcohol, it will only make matters worse. Instead, engaging in some kind of physical activity like going for a brisk walk or gardening can help you feel less lonely, perhaps by getting you out of your head and into life.
Not everyone derives happiness from being socially connected (especially introverts), but we can all still feel isolated and lonely at times. If you’re that person, try to focus less on your desire to be happy, and just concentrate on building relationships with people you care about and share common interests with. Also, our smartphone dependency can ironically leave us feeling disconnected with others. Try to seek out in-person social opportunities that are healthy in mind, body and spirit. That could be a walk or hike in nature with a friend, joining a city recreational class or program, attending a fitness class, or seeking volunteer opportunities in your community. And finally, developing the practice of compassion and gratitude can make you feel more connected to others. If you’re interested to learn more about ways to cultivate friendships, please click on this link.