Human beings are social creatures by nature. As important as it is to have our alone time to unwind and de-stress, it’s equally important to our health and longevity to remain socially connected. This becomes more challenging as we age. In our early years, it’s easy to take relationships for granted because people are all around us. In high school and college, we’ve got nothing better to do outside of school but hang out with our friends. By the time work and marriage come along, it becomes more difficult to make time for friends as other obligations demand more of our time, and some of the people we used to know start to fade out of our lives. Soon, children and all the responsibilities that go with them come along and before you know it, twenty years have passed without so much as sending your old friends a Christmas card. As the mounting responsibilities of life carry us away, it’s easy for friends to become strangers.
Like anything, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone, and we usually don’t notice it until our friendships have slipped away. Just like an intimate relationship, friendships also require time and attention if they’re to last a lifetime. Naturally, a spouse needs to be the primary relationship in a marriage, but it should never be at the exclusion of your friends. In fact, it’s important for both spouses to maintain friends and interests outside of their marriage in order for their relationship to remain healthy and strong.
As we age and our circle of friends gets progressively smaller, the tendency is for spouses to spend more and more time with each other, especially after children grow up and leave home. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when spouses become the whole world to each other, a sudden life change like death or divorce can leave a person utterly alone. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are becoming much more common with the rise in middle age divorce. If you’ve maintained friendships and interests of your own, they’ll be an invaluable support structure to keep you plugged into life if death or divorce should blindside you after 20 or more years of marriage.
Relationships are to humans as water is to fish. We’re swimming around all day long in them, going in and out of personal, professional and casual interactions and yet never realizing how vital they are to our health and survival. The sense of safety and support we receive in relationships fills a very primal need within us to relate and belong. This drive helps us find our identity, define our purpose and say, “This is where I belong and what I’m about.”
The trust, compassion, advice, humor, help, and compassion we get from our friends do more than make us feel good. They create a cascade of hormonal and chemical changes in the body that support our health and longevity.
In a way, you could say that relationships provide a kind of emotional nutrition that’s every bit as important to health and healing as food.
I remember in 1989 after Romania overthrew their communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, children were found suffering in government run orphanages. Many of them had been given food, shelter, and clothing, but absolutely no physical attention. Because these children were never touched, nurtured or interacted with on any social level, they developed permanent psychological and neurological handicaps. Science has known that children who do not receive proper love or nurturing can also develop a condition called failure to thrive syndrome. While nothing appears to be physically wrong with the child and it’s been properly fed, it gradually begins to lose weight and passes on. The fact is that human interaction, particularly emotional contact, is like an essential vitamin, an x-factor that we can’t do without if we intend to not just survive, but thrive.
Men are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to staying connected because they’re not naturally as social as women. A middle aged man who’s divorced and no longer keeps in touch with old co-workers because he’s now retired will have a harder time making new connections than a woman in the same position. Men are more solitary by nature. When they do get together, they usually talk about work, sports and politics, but rarely how they feel about things. By contrast, women make use of friendship in a completely different way and can make friends out of strangers more easily. That’s not to say that women don’t suffer loneliness, just that men usually have a tougher time overcoming it. This may be part of the reason why men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women.
Yes, loneliness hurts. There’s a reason why communities like the Amish and Quakers used shunning as a form of punishment. As if being in prison isn’t bad enough, there’s an even worse punishment than that — solitary confinement.
Being cut off from people hurts, but how much? It turns out that loneliness sets off the same stress signaling as the fight-or-flight response and is a significant risk factor for mortality that science is just beginning to understand.
The Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations study of adults between ages 50 and 68 showed that those who considered themselves lonely experienced a lower immune response to bacteria and viruses with an altered production of white blood cells and higher inflammation than those who were socially connected. A longitudinal study following 7,000 California residents over nine years showed that those who were the most isolated with the fewest social ties were more than twice as likely to die over a given time period. This increased risk held even when adjusted for things like smoking, obesity and alcohol use. Another study from Brigham Young University found that on the cellular level, isolation does more damage to overall health than not exercising and is twice as harmful as obesity. On the upside, the support of family, friends and neighbors improves life expectancy across the age spectrum and continues to increase as we get older, boosting our chances of living to a ripe old age by 50%.
One of the most common reactions to loneliness, especially in the Information Age, is to fill the void left by long lost friends with virtual friends online. Going back to the story of the children in the Romanian orphanages, it’s clear that it’s the energy and physical interaction we get from those we love that keeps us healthy and happy. There’s a real tangible element that feeds our souls in the moments we’re together that doesn’t transfer through an electronic filter. It’s also counterproductive because participating in chat rooms, online communities, and addictive social networks like Facebook have a tendency to keep people stuck in their houses for hours on end, which only breeds more isolation. Besides, when was the last time one of your virtual friends showed up to help you move house, drive you to the airport, help paint your living room or give you their real shoulder to cry on?
Plugging Into Life
Consider these tips to create or expand a social circle for yourself.
- Touch Base: If you’ve got an old acquaintance that you haven’t made contact with in the last year or so, reach out and see if you can set up a time to get together to reignite your friendship. Do your best to nurture the relationships with the people who’ve known you the longest. There’s much to be said about old friends who know us so well that not much needs explaining anymore.
- Volunteer: Find a cause that’s important to you and sign up to volunteer. Not only will you be doing a good deed, you’ll have the opportunity to meet people who care about the same issue(s) you do.
- Take a Class or Join a Club: Find an activity you’ve always wanted to learn how to do and get into a class that teaches it. It’s less scary to meet new people when you have something in common, which makes it easier to talk to other students in class about what you already love to do. Meetup.com is a great place to find groups in your area.
- Walk a Dog: If you have a dog, take it to the park for a walk. Dog owners love to talk about their pets, and you’ll find plenty of people to interact with along the way.
- Join a Spiritual Community: Spiritual and church-going people are very social and do lots of activities outside of their regular services. Find one that fits with your philosophy. Some of the health benefits enjoyed by spiritual people have been attributed to the social support people feel in these groups.
- Connect With Your Alumni Association: There are lots of activities to be involved in here, and sharing the same school already gives you an open door to start conversations with others.
- Get Cultured: Attend gallery openings, lectures, or fundraisers at organizations that interest you. These events draw large crowds and provide more opportunities to meet like-minded people.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.