You may be good at building your retirement nest egg — but paying attention to building your social circle, not just your IRA balance, may be equally important. Taking practical steps to combat chronic loneliness — which afflicts about 28 percent of Americans over age 50, according to the University of Michigan’s long-term Health and Retirement Study — can pay off in happier lives, and longer ones.
For some, this is not an easy task. An American Sociological Association study found that the average American’s circle of confidants declined by one-third between 1985 and 2006.
"We experience a much higher quality of life, including improved physical health, when we maintain strong social networks, particularly family relationships,” says Timothy B. Smith, a professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “On average, people with strong social ties live more than four years longer than others, with social relationships predicting longevity better than factors such as alcoholism, high blood pressure or obesity."
John McCallum, research director of National Seniors Australia, seconds that assessment. He says its effect on our lifespan “is as powerful as quitting smoking, losing weight or improving fitness.” Combating loneliness also improves functional abilities like mobility, upper extremity strength and stair-climbing powers.
Awareness of the dangers of social isolation and loneliness is growing. Alarmed by the avalanche of studies on social isolation, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed in 2018 the world’s first Minister of Loneliness, Tracey Crouch, to lead a cross-government group to drive action on loneliness across all parts of government. “You could equally say I'm a Minister for Happiness, because effectively that's what I'm trying to achieve,” says Crouch.
But once kids and grandkids are grown and flown, and retirees say goodbye to colleagues, what’s the secret to growing and maintaining a circle of friends? Experts recommend a wide range of initiatives: hobbies, volunteering, art classes, social clubs like the international Men’s Sheds workshop groups, government programs that connect older people with schools and young families, and active online communities.
In England, Royal College of General Practitioners Chair Helen Stokes-Lampard recommends prescribing fewer pills and more “social prescribing,” as in East Lancashire’s “Green Dreams” program, where general practitioners (GPs) referred patients to voluntary work in outdoor gardens — causing a 27 percent rise in reports of physical and mental health (and a 20 percent drop in GP appointments). She says successful schemes include walking groups, knitting groups and linking patients with local voluntary organizations, “which can really help to give people a sense of purpose.”
Here at AARP, we are asking our members what they do to keep their social connections vibrant and strong. What activities have you found to be helpful in fending off loneliness? Let us know, and we’ll feature some of your answers on our website. Remember, if you feel lonely, you’re scarcely alone, and there are ways to find connection and a happier life.