Be Social

How Investing in Your Social Life Pays Priceless Dividends

In my first post, Why A Solid Fitness Habit is Your Most Valuable Retirement Asset, I did my best to convince you that it’s well worth developing (or maintaining) a consistent, vigorous, and lifelong exercise routine.

That’s because staying physically fit delivers massive health benefits, including: significantly reduced risk of major illnesses like stroke, diabetes, and heart disease; decreased likelihood of dementia; improved mood and mental health; increased longevity; and a stronger immune system.

Even still, I think most of us will likely always feel some degree of reluctance before undertaking an activity that will make our heart pound, lungs burn, and muscles ache.

(It is called a WORKout, after all.)

So, you’ll probably be glad to hear that while this post also focuses on an overarching retirement planning strategy that delivers major health and wellness benefits, it’s a heckuva lot easier to implement.

The Data Is In: Having Friends is (Really) Good for Your Health

Friends help fight illness and depression, speed recovery and slow aging.

Most people have spent their entire lives being told about the importance of staying physically fit.

We’ve heard a lot less about the importance of staying connected socially, though that’s starting to change.

Turns out, there’s a mountain of scientific evidence that shows our social network plays a vital role in our physical and mental health.

A recent 10-year Australian study, for example, found that friends help fight illness and depression, speed recovery, and slow aging. Older people with a large social circle were also 22% less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends.

Similarly, the 85-year (and counting) Harvard Adult Development Study has found that it is our relationships – not our physical fitness, pathology, or psychology – that keep us happier and healthier throughout our lifespan.

And in May 2023, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, released an 85-page advisory summarizing decades of data on how social disconnection negatively affects our health (as well as community safety, resilience, trust, prosperity, and engagement).

This study found that a lack of social connection is worse for your health than breathing dirty air, drinking heavily, being inactive, carrying too much weight, and smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day!

Specifically, poor social relationships were associated with:

  • a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease;
  • a 32% increase in the risk of stroke;
  • a 50% increase the risk of developing dementia;
  • a 60% increase in the risk of premature death; and
  • a more than 100% increase in the risk of developing depression in adults who reported feeling lonely often, compared to those who rarely or never felt lonely.

In short, the advisory says, “social connection is a significant predictor of longevity and better physical, cognitive and mental health, while social isolation and loneliness are significant predictors of premature death and poor health.”

(Which is exactly why “Be Social” is a core tenet of “How to Plan for a Rich Retirement”. 😊)

How Having Friends Helps You Live Longer

How does having friends and family translate into such clear benefits?

One way friends and family improve our health is by influencing our behaviours.

According to Dr. Murthy’s advisory, social connection influences our health through three principal pathways; biology, psychology, and behaviour.

Biologically, strong social connection appears to provide a protective health effect by reducing dysregulation of the cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, immunity, and gut-microbiome systems (all critical to good health).

In contrast, being socially isolated increases inflammation, which has been linked to serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer’s.

Psychologically, positive social connection is linked to a stronger sense of meaning, purpose, and motivation in individuals.

This, in turn, translates into a greater pursuit of goals (including health goals) and health-promoting actions, such as the use of preventive health care services.

And finally, friends and family significantly influence core lifestyle behaviours, such as what we eat, how often we exercise, how much sleep we get, and how well we follow medical treatment plans.  

As a result, their impact on our health and longevity is substantial.

Why Loneliness and Social Isolation Are Growing  

OK. Even without all this scientific evidence, I think most people would intuit that their personal relationships are essential to their mental well-being, if not their physical health.

And even if having friends didn’t bestow any health benefits at all, I think most people would still choose to spend time with other humans.

Not only are we hardwired to do so – it just makes life way more enjoyable!

Hanging out with other humans just makes life more fun!

Even still, the data shows that, overall, our social networks and levels of social participation have declined dramatically over the past 30 years, with governments in Britain, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan all taking formal steps to address rising levels of loneliness among their citizens.

There’s a long list of factors behind the social unraveling, including:

  • a trend toward having smaller families (which leads to smaller extended families);
  • fewer intergenerational living arrangements;
  • fewer people feeling attached to their local community;
  • more people moving away from their families and/or home town;
  • significantly less people belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque;
  • an increase in people remaining single;
  • an increase in people living alone; and
  • the impacts of technology, which often reduce the quantity and quality of our social interactions.

A 2022 report from Canada’s National Institute on Aging, found that older adults can be particularly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness, due to declines in health and mobility, the loss of loved ones, and discomfort with using technology that might help them stay connected.

The transition into retirement can also obliterate a significant chunk of your social network, which is why it’s so important to be pro-active about shoring up your personal relationships well before the leaving the workplace.

Next Step: Get Pro-Active About Socializing!

While reversing a society-wide trend toward heightened loneliness will require an all-hands-on-deck effort (Dr. Murthy calls on “schools and workplaces, healthcare and public health systems, technology companies, governments, and faith organizations” to work together to combat disconnectedness), there’s myriad steps we can take as individuals to strengthen our social connections.

These range from small, easy gestures, like checking in with a friend by text, to more time-consuming and/or psychologically difficult actions, like joining a club or inviting a new acquaintance to lunch.

Volunteering has also been shown to be an excellent cure for loneliness.

What’s key is that you recognize the critical importance of regular social contact, and then get really pro-active about building a diverse circle of friends and family that will enable you to maintain that contact until the end of your life.

Investing time in your social network makes you happier today AND tomorrow.

I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself embraced by a strong network of truly wonderful friends and family – and I treasure them above all else.

However, I also know that, as I age, it would be ridiculously easy for me to slip into a life where I spend way too much time with my books, my garden, and my phone, and not nearly enough time in the physical company of other people.

(I’ve gotten pretty good at tamping down my natural inclination to decline social invitations, but could see allowing myself to stay home a lot more often if, for example, it became hard to get around.)

Which is why I plan to investigate, implement, and write about strategies for strengthening your existing relationships, as well as how to make new friends.

Now, go call someone you love!

Three More Things

To learn more about how a robust social life positively affects your health and longevity:

Watch The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life: in this 15-minute TED talk, psychologist Susan Pinker explores why the Italian island of Sardinia has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland and ten times as many as North America.

Read this interview with Marc Schulz, the associate director of the Harvard Adult Development Study and co-author of the 2023 book, The Good Life – Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness.

Listen to this podcast where Ezra Klein and Sheila Liming, associate professor of communications and author of forthcoming book “Hanging Out: the Radical Power of Killing Time” take a deep dive into why our social networks are crumbling. One key factor: in modern times, we’ve become more used to, and protective of, our privacy and less willing to put up with the “inconvenience” of sharing space with other people. This breaks from centuries of living in close community with others (and has proven to be extremely lousy for our wellbeing!)

What Do You Think?

Did you know that your social network played such a significant role in your health? How do you feel about the quantity and quality your current relationships? Are you satisfied? Or is there room for improvement? How do you see your social network and its role in your life changing as you age?

Please leave me a comment at the bottom of this page.

Do you think other people would enjoy reading this post? Please click the purple button to share on social media. (Thanks so much!)

                                                                              

Elizabeth Quayle has been an avid reader and writer for more than 50 years. Since earning a BA in English Lit (1991) and a Journalism Certificate (1996), she has written professionally for diverse public and private companies, as well as magazines, newspapers, non-profits, and government agencies. She started Live Well Anyway in 2023.

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