The Key to Well-being in Retirement? Other People.
by Linda Trum, LICSW, Ph.D.
As the Hebrew Bible in the book of Genesis makes clear, it is not God’s plan that we be alone. Plenty of evidence gleaned from both the social and hard sciences validates this profound truth. On the deep quantum level, which is mostly beyond my comprehension, I have learned that we can know something only through its relationship to something else, from our genomes to the activity of sub-atomic particles. Research tells us that as humans, we survive and thrive best when we are connected to one other.
The ways we have of making and sustaining personal connections—interacting with others face-to-face, keeping up ties with friends and family, being engaged in the community, and sharing meaningful activities—are important at all stages of life. In retirement, when the relationships and meaning associated with work and career are no longer resources, connecting with others becomes even more crucial.
When we are successful at making personal connections, we increase our levels of oxytocin, a vital bonding hormone that leads to calmness, the experience of love and well-being, better health, greater longevity, and more complex brain functioning. Sebastian Junger, in his recent book, Tribe*, reveals the paradox that in times of collective crises and stress, such as natural disasters and even war, many measures of well-being and social cohesion actually rise, as we are forced into interconnection and mutuality. In these times, there are fewer suicides, less depression, and less demand for pain and psychotropic medication, as well as greater resilience and immune function.
Yet, despite what we know, today’s American culture seems to foster more loneliness and social isolation than meaningful personal relationships. We focus on work, our children, and the tasks of parenthood to the exclusion of friendships and community engagement. We often work at home, shop from home, and even prefer to be in our backyard rather than our front porch. Our values of individuality and self-reliance work against us.
Instead of the pleasure produced by social relationships and being involved in the community, we hijack our pleasure pathways with substances, food, shopping, gambling, competition, and aggressive spectator sports. According to cutting-edge research by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz,** 25% of Americans live alone, and one in four has not talked to anyone about something important in more than six months. Retirees watch more TV than any other age group.
We seem to be communicating all the time, but in the efficiency of email and text messaging, we have lost something personal and vital. It is the reading of another’s facial expressions and the hearing of a person’s voice that release life-giving oxytocin, that biological pathway to feeling human, to feeling connected.
Women are better at maintaining relationships and creating social networks. Oxytocin is physiologically more normative for women and is produced in abundance during breast feeding and throughout child rearing. In contrast, men’s testosterone blocks oxytocin, making it imperative that men intentionally bond. When they make this effort, they experience less stress, more pain tolerance, less vulnerability, a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol, and an increase in oxytocin. For both men and women, positive relationships are second only to genetics in predicting positive health outcomes.
So, what are we to do? Here is some practical advice:
Get together with old friends, or at least call them. Make the effort. There is no substitute. You can’t make old friends, so keeping the ones you have is vital. They are your most reliable source for well-being.
Get involved in something you think is important. Social life and family activities are not enough. Seek out bonds of purpose, in which common interests and goals create shared meaning and the experience of connectedness. The brain can and will continue to grow with challenge and new interactions. In child development, this is called parallel play. When you do something that is meaningful for you, you will find meaningful connections in the process. You will make new friends.
Nurture your support network. Learn the names and a personal detail about the people you rely on: your doctors, pharmacist, bank teller, grocery clerk, letter carrier, barber, or stylist. Feeling that you are seen and known as a part of these routine, but vital, relationships—and they are relationships—will enhance your life and well-being.
Retirement is not a time for withdrawal. Reach out, get connected, hold hands!
Linda is a Ph.D.-level social worker with a very long and satisfying career doing social work, psychotherapy, coaching, and consultation. She continues to work part-time as well as to travel, exercise, read, and participate in anti-racism work and Education For Ministry with her church. She chairs the movie-night team and the writing group at her residence. She has two grown children, and four grandkids who are growing up way too fast.
*Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. (NY: 12, 2016)
**Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, The Lonely Americans: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century. (Boston: Beacon Press books, 2009)