Do you think you know the ingredients for a good life? Maybe you believe that everyone is unique and that there’s no universal recipe for joy. It’s true that we all have different hobbies and that our uniqueness enriches our communities. But millennia of human evolution have primed us for a shared goal: social connectedness.
For most of our history, humans have lived in close-knit, mutually dependent groups. Even today, in an increasingly disconnected world, we depend on one another for survival. So our brains read isolation not just as unpleasant but as dangerous and painful.
For eight decades, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has assessed what makes a good life, and the answer is clear: social connectedness. The study began in the 1940s, and over decades of follow-up, researchers found that the most important predictor of health, income, well-being and more is social relationships.
At least seven other longitudinal studies scattered across the globe demonstrate that deeper, richer, more varied connections to loved ones predict a healthier and happier life. Loneliness is devastating to well-being. Social connectedness is the antidote. Yet some older adults struggle to maintain lasting, meaningful social connections.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The benefits of social connectedness extend across an entire lifetime and begin the moment you start nurturing relationships.
Why Friendship Can Get Harder as You Age
Life can be hard. Sooner or later, we all experience challenges and stress. We need our relationships even more as we grow older because they help us cope with whatever life throws our way. A large longitudinal study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that people over 70 with the strongest network of friends were 22% less likely to die over the 10-year study period.
Researchers at Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies with more than 300,000 participants across the world. The result? High social connectedness increased the chances of surviving each year by 50%.
But as you age, life can become more complicated. Friends may move away. Kids, grandkids and other family members may rely on you more. Coordinating schedules can be challenging, and transportation can become more daunting — particularly if you or the people you love no longer drive. Public health researchers have been sounding alarm bells about an epidemic of loneliness for a decade. The pandemic made things even worse as people lost connections, social skills and loved ones.
With a little commitment, though, you can build meaningful social connectedness, whether you’re doing so for the first time, expanding on what you already have or nurturing something you lost.
8 Strategies for Attaining More Social Connectedness
Want to build more social connectedness into your life? Here are the best ways to start.
1. Live among friends.
Who do you see the most? The people you live near, whether it’s your neighbors or your local friends. Living among friends in a welcoming neighborhood full of people you like and want to get to know makes social connections more accessible. Rather than driving across town, you can meet for a quick chat at your door or head next door for some tea and connection. Live somewhere that makes you want to connect with others.
2. Build a recurring schedule of daily activities.
Whether it’s your book club, a music class or lessons to learn a new language, new pursuits enrich your life and sharpen your mind. They also afford myriad opportunities to forge new relationships. But a piecemeal approach can be stressful. You’ll be stuck searching for activities each day, then coordinating how to get there or whom to go with. Instead, consider building a recurring schedule of daily activities. This reduces planning stress. And when you go to the same activity each week, you’re more likely to build community with other regular attendees.
3. Get to know new people.
Making friends as an adult can be hard. It’s not like when you were in school, constantly around a group of peers, and only needed to invite someone to sit with you at lunch. You might not spend much time around like-minded peers if you’re not intentionally and consciously seeking them out. This is why it’s so important to find ways to meet new people. Becoming a member of a group, such as a book club, is a great option. Community living settings help replicate the friendship-rich environments of youth, making it easier to break the ice with new potential friends.
4. Become more active.
In addition to social connectedness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development found a strong correlation between exercise and good health. At every age and stage, exercise offers both immediate and long-term benefits. It’s also a great way to widen your circle. You might begin by chatting up the neighbor while out for your daily walk, then graduate to inviting them to join you. Joining a social activity group, such as SilverSneakers, can be an especially effective way to nurture connections.
5. Learn how to be a great friend.
To have truly great friendships, you’ll need to learn how to be a good friend. Some simple tips to become a better friend now include:
- Ask people about themselves. People love talking about themselves, and it’s a great way to break the ice (and learn that first impressions aren’t always right).
- Step outside of your comfort zone. People who seem different from you may offer new perspectives and can be exceptionally good friends.
- Listen more and talk less. Practice the art of empathy and of hearing what your friends have to say without immediately jumping in to offer advice or feedback.
- Follow up with people. Ask them about their weekend, about the event they told you they were going to or about their family.
- Reach out to people when they’re struggling.
6. Err on the side of generosity.
Giving to others feels good, whether you’re giving a neighbor a ride, helping a friend advocate for herself at the doctor or volunteering with a small group. You’ll almost never regret helping people. What’s more, giving is really good for your health and a great way to deepen social connections.
7. Treat your social skills as a muscle to exercise.
Social skills are skills. This means they can improve with practice. To sustain friendships, you must continuously nurture them. Spending time with the people you love flexes your social muscles, so you can get better at building connections over time. Keep at it. It will become easier — especially if you feel a little rusty right now.
8. Be careful with social media.
Social media offers the promise of connection, but someone else controls those connections. Algorithms determine who and what you see and are specifically designed to nurture outrage and more time spent on the page — not lasting connections. While social media can be a good first step to connecting with others, it’s not a substitute for real in-person connection (or calls and emails across distance). Avoid making social media your main platform for human connection — especially if you find yourself endlessly scrolling without initiating or participating in substantive conversations.