Social connections can help you stay healthier and happier throughout life
By Linda Melone
“This doesn’t mean that everyone who is lonely will have health problems as they age,” says Louise Hawkley, PhD, associate director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory of the University of Chicago and one of the lead researchers in the Chicago study. “It just puts them at a higher risk.”
Hawkley and fellow researcher John Cacioppo also found increased levels of epinephrine, the fight-or-flight hormone, in the loneliest people they studied. “The more years you live, the more stressful experiences you’re bound to have,” says Hawkley. “While not everyone who experiences losses will feel lonely, in those who do, loneliness can lead to problems like depression. And that may then contribute to high blood pressure and high cortisol levels, when stress hormones get out of whack.”
Today, more and more people are facing the challenges of loneliness. According to a study in the American Sociological Review, on average most Americans feel that they have two close friends, down from three friends two decades ago in 1985. During this same period, the percentage of people reporting no close confidantes rose from 10 percent to almost 25 percent, with 19 percent citing only one close relationship — often with a spouse. “Men in particular tend to rely on their spouses for fulfilling their social needs,” Hawkley explains. “So if the socially active spouse always does the initiating and she dies, it’s a steep learning curve for the spouse that remains to start from scratch.
“The older you get, it seems, the less you want to spend a bunch of energy on less than feel-good relationships,” says Hawkley, who believes people become more selective about choosing their friends as the years pass. That’s not to say that forming new friendships — or holding onto old ones — decreases in importance over time, however. Overall, friendships become only more precious as serious life issues begin to arise with advancing age.
Patterns of Friendship
In fact, relationships shift throughout our lives because of changing lifestyles and circumstances. “It’s perfectly natural that our friendships change over time,” says Irene Levine, PhD, psychologist and founder of the blog fracturedfriendships.com. “Friendships are usually based on shared interests and values. And some situations, like living in the same neighborhood, or having children the same age, make it easy for certain relationships to flourish. Unfortunately, over the years as your lifestyle changes, you may lose track of these friends. And that means it’s time to make new friends, whose life situation now more closely resembles your own.”
How to Make Friendship a Priority
If you’re looking for ways to bond with new people or even to rekindle some old-time relationships, here are some tips on where to begin:
- Make an effort. You need to take some initiative and not leave everything to others. And while it’s good to seek out new acquaintances, it’s also important to stay in touch with your regular friends too, maybe with a weekly telephone conversation or lunch date.
- Try to reconnect. You may also fondly remember people you once liked and have now lost touch with. Ask about them through mutual friends. Use the long arm of the Internet and social networking sites like classmates.com and reunion.com, to try to locate school friends or work associates from your past.
- Take it slow. There’s no need to be overly hasty. A better course is probably to ease into friendships rather than trying to befriend the first person you meet. A little get-acquainted time will show you whether the other person will be compatible and trustworthy over the long run.
- Be realistic. Try to keep your expectations firmly focused on what you can bring to a new friendship. This means demanding more from yourself than from the other person.
- Just do it. You may need to be persistent in your attempts to form friendships, so don’t get discouraged. And try not to get too caught up in your own expectations about how difficult or easy it should be to make a new friend.
- Extend your comfort zone. Spread your social network by joining groups that appeal to a wide span of interests. Though it can be challenging, consider stepping out of your comfort zone to associate with different types of people. Who knows what interesting characters you’ll meet?
- Be positive. Try to leave the old baggage behind. Root out negative thoughts you may have about friendships in your past and try to approach potential new friendships with an open mind.
Just remember, says Hawkley, “there are lots of ways to connect with other people, and making new friends is a good cushion against the inevitable losses that come with time.”