When you were a child you no doubt had dozens of friends. You’d hang out at school, catch-up on the weekends and, even as you got older, go on holidays together. It was an important part of growing up and helped you ease through those early life stages.
But, at times we can forget how necessary friendships are as we get older too. Life starts to get in the way of plans and you might not see each other for weeks or even months on end. But maintaining frequent and high-quality social connections is critical for physical and mental health at all stages of life.
Strong social connections facilitate social support, as well as a sense of belonging and shared identity that can build purpose in life, self-esteem and provide a buffer to the stressors of day-to-day life.
Sadly, individuals who are socially isolated (such as those who have been isolating amid the Covid-19 pandemic) and experience chronic loneliness, experience premature death, increased disability and poorer health. However, it’s important to note that different people have different social needs and some prefer more frequent social contact than others. The main thing is that people feel that they have enough social contact with others who matter to them.
But, whilst the research is clear that social connections matter, there are no clear guidelines about how much social contact is needed, with whom and for how long. It has been consistently shown that frequent social contact is critical, but it’s not clear how frequent the contact needs to be – whether it needs to be multiple times a day or multiple times a week. In general, the research suggests that more frequent connection is better.
There are also no clear guidelines on the required duration of the contact. For example, talking to someone briefly at the local shops or seeing someone for a meal. Instead, the research suggests that it’s the perceived quality of the contact that’s the most important component.
That is whether you feel connected to the person or group that you are interacting with, whether you feel valued, or that you are making an important contribution. Interestingly, these connections don’t need to come from family members, and in fact are perhaps strongest when they come from social groups in which you have a shared identity. For example, frequent and meaningful contact with ex-school friends, a local community group or neighbours can be particularly important for maintaining good physical and mental health.
But, there’s no denying that connecting later in life can feel much more difficult than it did when you were a child. People can especially struggle around retirement when the usual routine contact with work colleagues is disrupted. That’s why it’s so important during this time to make conscious efforts to reach out to friends, family and neighbours – as hard as that may be. It’s also wise to join some new social groups that are aligned with your areas of interest.
To help maintain strong connections, you should have a number of different social activities that you do frequently. Even though it may seem otherwise, it’s never too late to initiate social contact with others. Just remember, it can take some time to find the right group or activity to attend and it takes time to build up close relationships.
As a starter you can find out about social groups and events in your local area by contacting your local council and checking your local paper and community noticeboards. You could also ask a friend or neighbour about the activities that they take part in and see if you can join them one time to see what it’s like.
Understandably, you might need to push yourself to go along to these activities a few times until you stat to feel comfortable and connected to the other people. And remember, whilst it can be easy to expect others to keep up the contact with us, it’s also important that we take personal responsibility to maintain a broad network of social connections that we activity maintain.
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