9 Ways to Grow Your Friend Group at Any Age

Aging – there’s no side-stepping it but how well you do it has a lot to do with how you treat your body. Focus on essentials like nutrition, movement, exercise, and stress reduction, and you can help slow down the process.

But there’s another key element that often gets overlooked in the anti-aging game – and that’s emotional well-being. Numerous studies have shown that neglecting emotional health, particularly when it comes to social connection, can speed up aging. It can invite cognitive decline and depression, not to mention promoting the development of chronic physical diseases. In a nutshell, fending off loneliness by tending to old relationships and growing new ones is an excellent way to help yourself stay younger, longer. Here’s some background on why you need to connect with others and how to grow your tribe no matter what your age –and a few pointers on how to go about it:

You are not an island.

We human types are social creatures, born wired for emotional connection, and that’s true even if you like to think of yourself as a rugged individualist or even a loner. But the past few years of lockdown and seclusion have, for many people, made the previously abstract idea of isolation a lonely reality, for some, one that’s been a challenge to pull out of. If nothing else, all that disconnection has been a pointed lesson for outgoing people and more reclusive types alike about just how critical social connection is to emotional health and how much better day-to-day life feels with more social interaction in their lives.  

There’s another important element to this story that you may be less conscious of: less connection can shave years or even decades off your life. Recent studies have shown that those with higher levels of loneliness and limited social relationships tend to have shorter lifespans. The Journal of the American Heart Association reported a 30% increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and death among those who experience frequent social isolation and loneliness. Another toxic side-effect of isolation? It tends to increase susceptibility viral infections, making social isolation a rotten gift that keeps on giving.

Your mind and body need connection to stay well.

Not quite bounced back to your 2019 levels of social activity? No more foot-dragging. It’s time to amp up the volume on reconnecting with friends and family, that is, assuming those relationships were healthy ones to begin with. If they weren’t, if they brought you more drama than delight, feel free to keep them on the backburner or shed them completely if that’s the wisest course. Turns out, lousy relationships can torpedo health as well, increasing risk for cardiac events like heart attack, high blood pressure, blood sugar problems, weakened immunity and obesity, and this scary list is far from exhaustive.

Another practical reason to start growing your tribe? Over time, the simple reality is that people and circumstances change. Friends and relatives may move away, marriages may end, older friends may become housebound due to illness, some may die – all of which makes it especially important to keep growing your circle. Even more so as you hit your 50s and 60s and these life changes become more frequent.

Expand the circle.

If there’s been some thinning of your connections in recent years, well, you’re not alone. Few of us anticipated the social fallout of the pandemic and, just as crucially, the post-pandemic years. A lot of us simply got used to seeing fewer people even if there wasn’t a compelling health reason for it. In sum, millions of relationships changed shape – some faded away, some imploded and yes, some even got stronger. But no matter how yours got shaken up (or didn’t), cultivating new, or rebuilding older (worthwhile) social connections is the hedge you need to help yourself stay physically, emotionally and even neurologically healthy for as long as possible.

But don’t just take my word for it, consider the lifespans and healthspans of the super-agers in the ‘blue zones’ of Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece. In each locale, there’s a noticeably large population of people who live especially long and healthy lives, often staying active and vigorous into their 90s and beyond. What’s the thread linking the people in all these long-life hot spots? The lack of social isolation. Nearly all of these super-agers have robust social connections and networks that enable them to regularly engage with their  families, friends and communities. Certainly an anti-aging strategy we all can learn from! And let’s not forget that connecting with others is (usually) fun just for its own sake.

Brush up your tribe-building skills.

What’s the key to finding, building and nurturing your tribe? For some, it may be summoning up bit of courage to reach out. Others may need to do a little research to find out how to create opportunities for shared experiences that help create the ties that bind. It’s worth the effort, particularly if it can help the slow aging process, including the dementia risk! Admittedly, making new friends as an adult can be intimidating. A lot of us have simply forgotten how to do it. As children, play and proximity were the great friendship starters. As young adults, school and then starting careers often provided great foundations for friendships. But as time marches on, and child-rearing and office time passes, organic, impromptu opportunities to spend time with others tend to recede. So, what’s the way forward? Here are a few basics to help you get your head back in the game:

  • Know it’s a numbers game: Much like dating, the more people you reach out to, the better the chances something starts to take root.
  • Keep your eyes open: As you go about your daily life, keep an eye out for people whose company you find enjoyable or interesting. Be open to spending time with them and be patient in nurturing the relationship.
  • Connect with old skills: Remember when you asked your classmate or officemate out for coffee? It wasn’t a big production number, just a casual get-to-know-you. Sometime it went nowhere, sometime it kicked off life-long relationships. You never know unless you try, so don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Meet a new person through a friend?: To lay the foundation for something more, send them a follow-up, no-pressure email to say hello and pick up on a thought or article you may have discussed when you met. It may begin a conversation over the wires that could lead to a deeper connection, or at least a friendly basis for when you happen to come across them again. And if nothing comes of it, remind yourself that’s OK too.
  • ‘No’ is part of the process: Nobody likes rejection but know that you when you ask someone out for coffee or a museum visit or fill-in-the-blank, you may win a few, you may lose a few. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no, and that’s disappointing but chalk it up to experience and move on. But, if they say yes, it might be the start of something priceless.
  • It doesn’t have to be a love match: Also remember that as things evolve, things can go either way. Over time, you may find your new connection to be motivating and fun to be around, or perhaps not quite your cup of tea, but again, don’t be afraid to roll the dice – and keep life interesting.

Your social connections are out there, so go get ‘em.

OK, so you’re brushing up your social connection skills, you’ve prepped yourself for both yes’s and no’s. Next, it’s time to get out there. Though in-person is best, if physical or logistical issues make in-person gatherings too challenging, virtual still offers benefits – but if you’re able bodied, get out there in-person.

To help relationships start, take root and grow, coming together for shared experiences that require effort and commitment, oriented around a shared goal or mission is an excellent way to help make that happen. Having a level of interdependence helps too, and by that we mean gatherings in which individuals rely on each other regularly to meet basic needs and engaging with the same folks numerous times.

For older folks with basic computer skills, virtual connections will still help lift spirits, stave off loneliness and improve quality of life, so by all means elders should go online when necessary, or in a pinch, use the phone more often help fill the social connection gap.

How else to grow your social circle? Here are a few techniques to try:

  1. Sign up for group movement, be it an organized class, and outdoor bird-watching group or a neighborhood rain-or-shine walking group.
  2. Join a group at a wellness retreat or educational conference to expand your knowledge base and opportunities for impromptu social interactions with fellow attendees.
  3. Start your own group to regularly go out on visits to interesting sites or explore your city; day trips to nearby hiking locales; lunch and shopping at an outlet mall; or, circle up with other parents coming together to collectively meet childcare needs.
  4. Use a hyper local app like nextdoor.com to create a book or movie club, or to organize simple local gatherings, coffee dates or even a neighborhood watch group.
  5. Try out different local interest groups by connecting on meetup.com, or joining a local gardening club, runners group or more organized clubs like Red Hat Society, Mastermind, Toastmasters, etc.
  6. Get into group travel and sign on for an organized overseas trip or cruise for a shared experience that will also offer plenty of opportunities for relationship-starting shared experiences.
  7. Get more involved with a meditation group, a church, temple, or mosque, or another spiritual group that appeals.
  8. Volunteer on community projects that involve commitment and creating something together.
  9. Consider the oldies but goodies, as in reconnect with people you liked years ago but may have lost track of. Facebook and LinkedIn are great places to start re-kindling older relationships.

BOTTOM LINE: Creating a strong social support system is crucial in preventing isolation at any age, and particularly during difficult life transitions, so now is the time to start cultivating a community of individuals who you can share life’s highs and lows with and rely on in the future. It’s never too late, so be sure to keep connecting, and making your moments with others count – and you’ll reward yourself health-enhancing positivity and slower aging. Count us in!

Longevity Reading