You really can get by with a little help from your friends. A new study of 6,500 Britons found that at age 50, having regular interactions with a wide circle of friends has a significant impact on psychological well-being, and is especially important to the happiness of women.
For men, family is more important to well-being, according to the study, published online in the “Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.”
Researchers culled data from the British National Child Development Study (NCDS), a longitudinal study that has followed a group of people born in the same week in 1958, starting at age 7. The researchers examined participant surveys collected at age 42, 45 and 50 that included questions about their psychological health and the number of friends and relatives they met up with once a month or more.
Forty percent of men and roughly a third of women said they had more than six friends whom they saw regularly. Those people were significantly happier than their peers. Moreover, maintaining relationships is key: “Having fewer than ﬁve friends at age 45 predicted signiﬁcantly poorer psychological well-being at age 50,” the researchers write.
This isn’t the first study stressing the importance of a midlife social network. Research published in 2010 that examined the results of nearly 150 previous studies determined that the friendship has as much impact on the risk of death as smoking, drinking, physical activity or obesity.
Interestingly, the British study found that the less education men had, the more likely they were to have a larger social network. Men who left their full-time studies between the ages of 17 and 19 were 55 percent more likely to have a large circle of friends; for men who continued their education after age 20 were 40 percent more likely to have a large circle of friends.
That finding may be a function of time, assuming higher education is correlated with a better job and a higher income. A Princeton study found men earning more than $100,000 annually spend 20 percent of their time on passive leisure, compared to 35 percent for men making less than $20,000.
However, for women, the opposite was true: Those who left full-time education after age 20 increased the odds of having a larger circle of friends by 74 percent, compared to 38 percent for women who ended their education between 17 and 19.
Being single was also associated with a smaller circle of friends.
What you want is someone to hang with near where you live. Approach this scientifically. Having a friend who lives an hour's drive away will mean you won't see them as much as the person who lives closer. So think global, but stay local. That means your local coffee shop, the local branch of the public library, they local chapter of the Sierra Club, or the local college that offers evening courses.
If you play tennis, join a club or take a few lessons at the community center. If you like to throw parties, volunteer to run the annual fund-raiser at your synagogue or church; when the board thanks you publicly at the dinner, everyone will learn your name. If you hike, join the Sierra Club. If you bicycle, join a biking group or enter a race in your age category. Here's the one caveat about following your interests: Nobody ever met anyone while watching "American Idol" from the couch.
Be open to the idea that it's OK to have friends who are older or younger. The fact that they are in different stages in life just means they bring a different perspective to the table. While a 14-year-old won't be interested in socializing with a toddler, that 10-year age gap dissipates when they get older. Why not say yes to the 30-somethings who invite you to join them for drinks after work? Invite them over for dinner with their families and get to know their kids. Their views on the world may not match yours precisely, but variety is the spice of life.
If you are post 50 and uncoupled, you might find that traveling isn't as much fun. Call it the Noah's Ark theory, but in general, we like to go places paired up. There are services that will help you find a travel room-mate. Not only does this give you someone to talk to over dinner, it cuts down those single supplements that some tours and cruises charge. Friendly Planet runs one such pairing-up service. Road Scholar offers many active adult adventure vacations here -- offers to find you a roommate if you want. Their programs and generally educationally based and draw a well-heeled and educated crowd. Cruise ships do a pretty good job of making sure solo travelers find people to hang out with; group dining arrangements go a long way toward conversational icebreaking.
Even if you've never been a joiner, now may be the time to get yourself out there. Got a new puppy or an old dog who needs some new tricks? Find a community dog-training class. If you like to cook, take a cooking class. Participate in the 5K run for charity, even if you walk the final three.
Keep your smart phone with you and ask for numbers. Sure it may feel a little awkward to say to someone you just met "Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you on this Sierra Club hike but the next one isn't for two months. Would you like to get together for a hike before that?" Worst they can say is no.
With Skype and apps like FaceTime, it's easier than ever to have face-to-face visits. Don't assume your old friends are too busy to talk to you on the phone. Most cellphone plans include free long-distance calls and for those that don't, there's Skype. Invite friends who live a great distance to come and stay with you. Show them your city. Friendships are like gardens; it's often easier to tend to an existing one than grow a new one from seeds.