Having a social life is pertinent to our physical and mental well-being. Research in the relatively new field of interpersonal neurobiology shows the importance of maintaining social connections as we get older. Our brains and bodies need social connections to age well.
In his book, Timeless: Nature’s Formula for Health and Longevity, Pepperdine University psychology professor Louis Cozolino extols the positive impact of human relationships. According to Cozolino, “Our brains are social organs, and that means that we are wired to connect with each other and to interact in groups. A life that maximizes social interaction and human-to-human contact is good for the brain at every stage, particularly for the aging brain.” In his previous book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Cozolino emphasizes that people (at any age) who have more social support tend to have better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance.
In fact, many studies have shown that social isolation or loneliness can affect cognitive function. A study on Social and Emotional Aging found that older adults embedded in strong social networks and high levels of social activity are less likely than their more socially disengaged peers to experience declines in cognitive functioning.
According to the National Institute on Aging, social isolation and loneliness have also been linked to “higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.” And, conversely, “people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function, studies show.”
Research has shown that social interaction offers older adults many benefits. Connection with others not only allows us to survive but also to thrive. When we’re younger, more we have more natural social opportunities to meet, interact, and connect with people. We often develop relationships because of our surroundings.
“Circumstantialships” can include schoolmates, work colleagues, and parents of our children’s classmates. As we grow older, those contextual relationships that we had as a student, employee, and parent, can fade away as we prune those friendships that were not emotionally close or especially meaningful. Oftentimes, life just gets in the way. People you were close with before get busy, you get busy, and the relationship dwindles.
Finding friends after 60 can be a challenge. research shows that Baby boomers have trouble making new friends in retirement. There’s social risk involved in relocating, retirement, health and mobility issues, and even poor finances. Death of a spouse or loved one can affect our friendships. Sometimes our social circles shrink as time passes we find that we no longer have the same interests as our old friends. We have grown apart. We need different things from our relationships because we are different. On top of that, fewer Americans are attending religious services or engaging in community organizations, two areas where people tended to congregate and meet like-minded people. You may have a thousand Facebook friends, but do you have a close network of real friends to share your daily struggles with?
At this stage, you want to focus on adding people to your life that share your passions and dreams. Here are some ways to make new friends in midlife and beyond.
Be a good friend
Would you want to be friends with you? Tips from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends & Influence People include encouraging others to talk about themselves and listening in earnest. When done sincerely, it makes the other person feel important. Smile and make an effort to remember people’s names.
It can be hard (especially for those with social anxiety) to take responsibility for your feeling of loneliness and to take the first step of reaching out to others. It sounds obvious, but when you meet someone you like, invite them to meet again.
Meet your neighbors
Start with your existing social network. Do you even know your neighbors? Are there any long-lost friends you might want to reconnect with? Invite the friends you do have to dinner, and encourage them to bring guests that you’ve never met.
Although there may be less face-to-face interaction than before, these days we are more “connected” than ever. Phones, social media, email, and video chat platforms like Skype help us communicate with distant friends, but they can also help us find values-based places to make new acquaintances.
Online groups like Sixty and Me offer online friendship and support, while The Transition Network is an “organization of women, 50 and forward.” The Red Hat Society has been connecting women over the age of 50 for years. Journeywoman is a community for older travel adventurers. There is a Facebook group for just about any interest you can dream up. Simply type a keyword into the search box, and request to join the group of your choice.
Your interests, hobbies, passions, and skills are a font of friends. Not only can you meet people with similar interests when you pursue these activities, but you’re also becoming a more interesting friend yourself. You could even try something new, like learning another language or taking a cooking class.
Join the club
In addition to finding activities to participate in, you can also find clubs that line up with your interests. Community organizations you could join include quilting circles, book clubs, civic organizations, church groups, exercise classes, singing groups, and Toastmasters. Perhaps there’s a poker night you can join, a local Scrabble club, or even a weekly trivia night. Obviously, not everyone in these clubs is going to have the same views as you about everything, but that’s part of the fun of trying on new friends.
Attend local events
Check the local paper, Facebook, Meetup, Eventbrite, or Google for local event listings. Going to performances, fundraisers, festivals, etc., gets you out there, where the people are. If you’re self-conscious about attending on your own, just think about how you can’t be the only one who is there to meet other people. Don’t be afraid of making new connections, introduce yourself and strike up a conversation in a friendly way. Going to community events helps you cast a wide net for your new sidekick options.
Volunteering allows you to use your skills, give back to a cause that is important to you, and meet new people. Not only does volunteering have a positive effect on society, but doing good for others has a positive effect on you. Contribute to a worthy cause through organizations, not-for-profits, and charities.
Volunteer Match can help you hook up with opportunities in your area. Need some more inspo? Try your local soup kitchen, animal shelter, or senior center. Work for social change with Rotary International. The American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity promote teamwork and are always looking for help.
Fellow volunteers are probably there for the same reason you are and might be more open to connecting with strangers. Just the fact that they’re volunteering their precious time to help others shows that they’re likely more empathetic and less self-focused. The best part? It’s free!