Social Connections: The secret to a happy, healthy life?

Social Connections: The secret to a happy, healthy life?

 Could a lack of close friends be as deadly as a 15-cigarettes-a-day habit?

 Few things enrich our lives as much as friendship. Social connections can be supportive, fun and give us a sense of acceptance and camaraderie we don’t always find with family. And experts say having friends can be beneficial to our health and increases longevity, as well.

 Numerous studies point to positive benefits, especially as we age. One study of over 300,000 people by Brigham Young University psychologists found that a lack of friends can increase the risk of premature death by 50 percent — about the same risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and about doubles the risk of obesity. A Swedish study of people ages 75 and over showed the lowest risk of dementia among those with a network of close relationships.    

 Researchers believe the reasons are biological as well as motivational. Studies show that social connections lower stress levels, which helps prevent coronary damage, improve insulin regulation and boost the immune system. And friends simply motivate us to take better care of ourselves, experts say.

 “Friends encourage us to get health checkups and push us to be more engaged in life, which makes our time here more fulfilling,” says Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., professor at University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and author of two books on friendship, including “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships,” published by Oxford University Press. 


 New friends

 Maintaining friendships can be especially challenging as we age and lifestyles change. In our 30s through 50s, friends may fall out of touch, separated by distance and demands of careers and raising families. Greif also found that we tend to discard more demanding relationships as we age, keeping only those we find most fulfilling.

 At the same time, we may not know how to approach making new friends.

 “Some believe that they cannot be friends with people they did not grow up with,” Greif says. “To make friends, we have to engage in activities we enjoy and be willing to reach out to others.”

 Older adults may find that a great way to make new friends is to move to a retirement community where it’s much easier to meet people who share common interests and develop an active social life. Properties such as The Moorings, a Presbyterian Homes retirement community in Arlington Heights, Illinois, can provide a warm environment that brings like-minded people together with fulfilling activities — from lectures and exercise classes to parties and trips to concerts and ballgames. 

 Social life is a big part of Presbyterian Homes’ Choices programs, which addresses multiple dimensions of wellness, including intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and provides ample opportunities for developing rich relationships, says Barbara Schwarting, a resident of The Moorings.

 "For six years I served on the Spiritual Life Committee at The Moorings, planning spiritual retreats and other activities designed to encourage residents to get in touch with their faith,” she says. “It was a great way to get to know people, make some wonderful friends and inspire others to pursue a spiritual and meaningful life.

 “When my husband and I moved here eight years ago, we knew we were at home. The warm, caring staff and the friendly people who live at The Moorings are the reason I love it here,” Schwarting says.

Moving to an active retirement community can be an especially good antidote for loneliness or perhaps a recent loss, Greif says.

 Marge Gilbert found a vibrant new sense of inclusiveness after moving to Westminster Place, a Presbyterian Homes retirement community in Evanston, Illinois.

 “Everyone is so friendly here, even to out-of-towners like me,” Gilbert says. “After living in Florida for 30 years, I can tell you that nothing compares to the warmth and sense of community I found here at Westminster Place.”

 Of all the tips you read about how to live a happy, healthy life, surrounding yourself with friends should be at the top of the list.


—Bob Young for Presbyterian Homes