HealthAgenda

Mental health

The importance of friendships as you age

Having friends is good for your health – that’s no surprise. But new research shows that as we get older, close ties with friends become more important than ever.

Health Agenda magazine
October 2017

When Meg Tankard turned 65, she was elated. She’d worked from the day she turned 16 (“In the butcher’s shop down the road, after school”) to the day she could officially retire as a primary school teacher. She couldn’t wait to finally have time for herself and her family – reading, sleeping in, going for long walks and finally figuring out how to make her own bread.

Just 6 months later though, she was miserable. Yes, she was reading a book a week and making sure she enjoyed an extra half hour in bed every morning. But something was missing.

The loss of social life

“When I retired, I didn’t realise I’d be losing so much of my social life,” says Tankard. “Of course I had friends outside of work, but I hadn’t acknowledged how much I relied on the daily interactions I had with colleagues – talking about a TV show we’d all watched, picking apart current affairs… even gossiping with each other or just walking down the road to get a coffee together. It all made me feel like I was part of something. When I retired, it was suddenly just me, and I felt very alone.”

Meg’s reaction is in line with new research which shows that the power of friendships actually grows stronger as we age – and might even be more important than family.

The connection with health

The research, conducted by scholar William Chopik at Michigan State University in the US and published this year in the journal Personal Relationships, examined 2 wellbeing surveys that canvassed almost 280,000 people.

In his first study, Chopik looked at the relationship data of more than 270,000 people from nearly 100 countries. He found that while family and friendships were both important, at advanced ages the only strong sign of health and happiness was friendship.

The second study analysed data from a separate survey of around 7,500 people and found that when participants reported having strong support from close friends, they also said they felt happier. People whose friends were a source of strain reported having more chronic illness.

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer isn’t surprised by these findings. “Social connection is good for our health,” she says. “It makes sense that having a close group of friends – at any age – makes us happier, less stressed and therefore, healthier.”

Brewer adds that, while solitude can be useful at times, overall loneliness has increasingly been shown to have a negative impact on our physical and mental health.

“The thing about loneliness is that it’s multi-dimensional; we experience it differently but it’s generally characterised by lack of meaningful friendships,” she says.

All of which helps to explain why Tankard could be feeling lonely, despite having a husband and children. She knew she had to make some changes.

“It sounds silly, but I needed to get back to work,” she says. She now works as a casual teacher 1-2 days a week and has joined a book club to foster her love of reading. She also signed up for a bread-making course at a local bakery.

“I never really thought about making new friends later in life, but I’m so glad I put myself out there. I used to wake up and think, ‘What have I done?’ Now I wake up and get ready for the day. There’s so much to look forward to.”

Why do we crave connection?

It’s almost taken for granted that humans want companionship – but why? Brewer says that our ancestors relied on relationships to help them survive. Matthew Lieberman, a social psychologist and professor of biobehavioural sciences at the University of California, argues that connection and companionship are as necessary to humans as food and water.

From his research analysing brain scans of adults interacting with each other, Lieberman determined that we’re profoundly shaped by the people around us, and that when our social bonds are threatened we suffer not just emotionally but physically.

Like Brewer, Lieberman also acknowledges that connection is a deeply held need that can be traced back to our ancient ancestors. Being in groups didn’t just bring good health in terms of eating and having shelter, it “helped us evolve the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our wellbeing to social connectedness”.

Where to make new connections

  • Join a book club. Many local bookshops and libraries run their own book clubs. None in your town? Create one. 
  • Join your suburb’s community Facebook group. Just enter your suburb in the search bar and stay on the lookout for events you can get involved in. 
  • Volunteer. Why not put your spare time to good use and make a few new mates while you’re at it? Go to volunteer.com.au for hundreds of opportunities: some are for one-off events; others are ongoing.
  • Get outside. Simply heading outside for a walk forces you to get to know your neighbourhood. Say hello to people. Head to the park if you have a dog. Strike up a conversation. You never know where it might lead. 
  • Join a class. There’s no shortage of both free and paid classes available all over the country. Want to perfect your French? Decided to figure out how to put that old motorcycle back together? You can bet there’s a class for that. Adult Learning Australia is a good place to start.

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