Friend-making (and friendship cultivation) is a skill worth learning and practicing at all ages, but in particular the older we get.
This morning, I was reminded of that truth when I opened a email from the Gottman Institute. The headline — “We are pack animals” — is acknowledgement that DNA-level instincts within us have a strong affect on our physiology, for better or worse.
One of those instincts is the deeply ingrained emotional need to be social, to have satisfying relationships. To have friends.
According to plenty of recent research, a lack of friends can actually be lethal.
Loneliness — separation from the pack — is apparently worse for human health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And thanks to the individualism of modern life, it is becoming epidemic, enough so that the UK has appointed a Minister For Loneliness.
In my retirement research, I keep a file on loneliness among older people. As of this morning, it contains 272 notes or articles, an indication of the scale of the problem.
This article (a link from the Gottman email), like many of the others I’ve collected, provides a dire warning: "A 2013 study from the AARP reports that 40 percent of adults report frequent overwhelming sensations of loneliness, a number that has doubled from 20 percent in the 1980s.”
That’s adults in general. In older people, the problem is worse, as are the consequences.
"One study published in the British Medical Journal found that feelings of isolation and loneliness in seniors between the ages of 65 and 86 led to a 64 percent increase in the risk of developing dementia, an extraordinary spike in odds highlighting the importance of fostering meaningful relationships at all stages of life.”
These are some other risks of protracted loneliness:
More stress hormones
More heart disease
That list came from a seminal 2016 article in The New York Times by Dr. Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He too focused largely on older people. "The loneliness of older adults has different roots, “ he writes, “— often resulting from family members moving away and close friends passing away. As one senior put it, ‘Your world dies before you do.’”
The final chilling statistic: Isolated older people, “are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions.”
Robust social interactions. Meaningful relationships at all stages of life. Especially as we age.
In retirement, those of us who lose workplace friendships then watch other friendships literally die, could be putting ourselves at risk unless we have a strategy for replacing them — because we lose more than friends. “The language of friendship,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “is not words but meanings.”
Feel free to email me about this post.
I probably can’t respond but would appreciate your insight or story or query, which I might refer to in a future post.