There are seven dominant predictors of successful aging that are within our control, with stable long-term relationships being the single most important one. This finding was proven by the 80-year plus longitudinal Harvard Study of Adult Development that tracked 268 Harvard students and 465 disadvantaged boys from Boston. Robert Waldinger, the study’s fourth director, presented its main findings in his viral TED talk, watched by more than 42 million viewers: “What Makes a Good life? Lesson from the Longest Study on Happiness.” His conclusion: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
The opposite is also true. The lack of social connection increases mortality. Waldinger says “loneliness kills.” The Stanford Center on Longevity Director Laura Carstensen’s May 12, 2016 Time Magazine article “Baby Boomers Are Isolating Themselves as They Age” noted “ Social isolation is as strong a risk factor for early mortality as cigarette smoking.”
What does that mean for all of us? Our top priority should be to intentionally cultivate social connections. That’s critical for those of us who are going it alone, whether by choice, divorce, or death. Kira Birditt and Toni Antonucci in a 2007 article published in Journal of Family Psychology, found that those of us who have at least two true friendships besides a spouse were associated with higher levels of self esteem and life satisfaction as well as lower levels of depression. Waldinger states that the quality of close relationships matter and that you need good, warm relationships that ultimately “protect both our bodies and our brains.”
Here are five easy steps to deepen your social connections. (Be mindful that we are still in the midst of the Covid pandemic and need to heed regional Covid rules.)
- Create a weekly activity in which you and your friends participate. Assume participation is mandatory and that you only need to inform people when you’re not attending. Great examples include golfing, tennis, biking, and walking. These are all activities that can be done in a group. Pickleball is also really popular; you might want to give it a try.
- Each week, randomly and proactively connect by phone or social media with someone you haven’t seen in a while. Rekindle past friendships. Mend broken relationships.
- Organize dinner parties once a month with different friends and groups. Become a connector and someone who is a multiplier of connections.
- Join an organization about which you are passionate. Meet like-minded people while giving back to your community.
- Plan an annual travel excursion with your inner circle. Approach the planning as a group, engage in the details, learn about the culture and history.
Throughout this “Going It Alone” section of this blog, we will share learnings from others navigating retirement alone, so that you don’t have to do it all alone.