When it comes to your health, loneliness may be as bad as smoking and worse than obesity. That’s the conclusion from the journal PLOS Medicine of nearly 150 studies on social relationships and mortality. Researchers also found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival than those whose relationships were weaker, meaning that maintaining a social life isn’t just good fun — it’s good for you.
Earlier this month, we asked readers to share how they stay connected. Here’s what they had to say.
For some, strong social connections start at home. “I look forward to every other weekend,” wrote Kathy Brodock. That’s because she spends this time with her grown children and granddaughters. For grandparents and grandkids in particular, the benefits of quality family time go both ways. Studies show that grandparents who help babysit live longer, while children whose grandparents are involved in their upbringing report greater levels of well-being.
For others, new activities were the key to making connections. “I retired at 58 ten years ago filled with anxiety and depression,” wrote Chuck Fink. “I started a men's group based on open personal disclosure and social networking.” Now, he said, there are 15 groups in his city.
Many readers said that volunteering helped them get involved. Ramona Kemberling fosters kittens for her local animal shelter and volunteers at their fundraisers, while Tony Triche volunteers part time doing homeless outreach. Research shows that those who spend time serving and supporting others experience significant benefits to their physical and mental health — and starting small can make a big impact. Just two hours of volunteering a week are all that’s needed to have a positive effect on your life and health.
Some activities, like exercise, offer the chance to bond with people with like-minded interests in addition to the health benefits. “When I cut way back on my work schedule, I started attending the Silver Sneakers exercise classes offered in my area,” wrote Carol Cochran. “Class members range in age from 55 to 90. Everyone works at their own pace. Made lots of interesting new friends.” Marcia Sherman’s experience was equally beneficial. “I joined the Y senior aquatics group,” she wrote. “I've made new friends. Six of us went on a cruise together in April.”
Exercising your brain — whether through classes, clubs or other forms of learning — has similar upsides. Gloria Miles wrote that she’s an “avid reader” who remains active largely through her church, where she’s a book club member and teaches Sunday school. She also attends classes geared toward those 50 and up at a community college. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, she’s in good company. It estimates that 10 percent of community-college students are 40 or older.
Connections don’t have to happen face to face to count, either. For many readers, social media is a way to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. “I appreciate how Facebook has enabled me to reconnect (or stay connected) with so many people from my past,” wrote Kevin Carroll. “I live in Northern California, but my friends (not virtual) live in Jamaica, Japan, the Bahamas, Ireland, the Philippines, and in all corners of the USA.” For those who want to improve their skills, technology training classes can provide the tools to start connecting digitally.
You don’t have to wait to feel the effects of loneliness to take action. For Chris Knoblaugh, being proactive was key. “I saw how isolated my mom became,” he wrote. So, in anticipation of retirement, he joined clubs, connected with old colleagues, and started taking online classes. “I will be retiring in three years,” he wrote, “but should be in good shape for that.”
Experts agree that planning for retirement means more than managing your finances. It’s a process that should also take into account the connections you want to cultivate going forward. Tom Sightings, author of You Only Retire Once, calls companionship one of the four horsemen of retirement. “If you’re going to ride on to enjoy retirement in paradise,” he writes, your companionship needs must be “considered and conquered.”
To keep your social connections strong, take a two-part approach: Nurture existing relationships and hobbies while seeking out new activities and ways to connect. “I think the key to connection is looking for the great things life has to offer,” wrote Sue Stephens. “A positive outlook goes a long way in staying connected.”