I recently ran across an excellent TED talk by Dan Buettner about longevity. You can watch the 20 minute talk or read a transcript Here! He claims that the capacity for life expectancy is about age 90 for most people, perhaps a bit longer for women. A very few have won a genetic lottery and have a capacity to live over 100 years. Buettner calls himself an explorer, and he set out to find locations where the people live much longer than people in other places. In his talk he identifies an island in the Okinawa region of Japan, Sardinia which is another Island off the coast of Italy, and Loma Linda, California.
A common factor among the groups of people who live much longer than average is that they stay socially connected throughout their lives. “You know the two most dangerous years in your life are the year you’re born, because of infant mortality, and the year you retire.” In my opinion there are a couple reasons that the year of retirement is dangerous. One is the loss of purpose, and the other is the social isolation that can occur. I’m not saying that everyone will retreat and shrivel up once you stop going to work. But I want to recognize that there is a risk. For many people, especially men, most of our social interaction comes from work. And when we stop going to work every day, we aren’t magically issued new friends.
According to Buettner, “Fifteen years ago, the average American had three good friends. We’re down to one and half right now.” Think about your friends. Who might you call to help with a little project around the house? Who would come visit you in the hospital? Who would you drive to the airport? Is there any chance that you met one or two of those people at work?
And now extend the circle a little wider. Think of who might attend your retirement party. How about send a holiday card or come to your child’s wedding or graduation open house? My guess is that for many people, a good portion of the people in this second circle have roots back to work. And for the second circle and more distant acquaintances, much of the interaction we have is accidental, happenstance. We don’t go out of our way to see them, but we still talk when the occasion presents itself. But once our pattern of going to work every day changes, the occasion probably won’t present itself. These minor friends and brief interactions may seem insignificant. Until they’re gone.
Buettner continues, “If you were lucky enough to be born in Okinawa, you were born into a system where you automatically have a half a dozen friends with whom you travel through life. They call it a Moai. And if you’re in a Moai you’re expected to share the bounty if you encounter luck, and if things go bad, child gets sick, parent dies, you always have somebody who has your back.” Well I wasn’t born in Okinawa. And most of the Beer and Peanuts readers weren’t either. (Or at least you don’t live there now; I just checked the analytics for our website traffic).
Long, satisfying life involves many things, including having friends. So what can we do if many of the friends we have when we are working won’t necessarily be there when we stop working? Two quick ideas:
Be intentional about making friends outside of work. This can be based on an activity you like to do. It can be a golf or bowling league, a knitting or book club. You might think of volunteering for an organization or an activity you enjoy. For the purposes of making friends, there should be opportunity to go at the same time each week or month so that you interact with the same people each time.
Become active in a church or synagogue. Religious organizations typically have regularly scheduled activities so there is the element of repeatability which provides opportunity to make friends. It also has very little to do with your work, so friends from church are very unlikely to fade away when you retire. In addition, Buettner identifies several healthy impacts of religious activity including lower stress and inflammation levels, the importance of slowing down on a regular basis, as well as the social benefits.
I want you to live a long, healthy, satisfying life. Just as we suspected, having friends is key to both the length and enjoyment of our lives.