A key step in preparing for retirement: Build your social network

By Joe Casey
As you get closer to retirement, are you thinking more about your health? I know I am. Perhaps you’re focusing more on wellness and fitness lately. Have you seen the flurry of recent articles alerting us that sitting is the new smoking? Indeed, there are real dangers to our health if we aren’t moving enough throughout the day. But this isn’t about smoking or fitness. I’m fairly confident you know about the health implications of both. I want to share with you another risk to our health that researchers have identified, and which doesn’t receive as much press. While sitting too much is dangerous, so is being a hermit (and being a sedentary hermit is even worse).
Isolation is bad for your physical health
The first studies linking social connectedness and health were conducted in the late 1970s and established an association between a lack of social relationships and higher rates of mortality. Here’s more evidence that isolation is bad for your physical well-being: A number of studies found that a lack of social connectedness is a big risk factor to health and longevity, comparable to other risk factors such as smoking and a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, social isolation has been found to pose a greater health risk than hypertension and obesity. A meta-analysis of 70 studies covering over 3 million participants, found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone were associated with an ‘increased likelihood of death’ by 26 percent, 29 percent and 32 percent, respectively.
I thought about my daughter as I gathered the research on social connectedness – and how important it is to her that she integrates socially into her new environment at college. What happens to that natural need for social connectedness as we age? Does it decrease or is it just more challenging to fulfill? Retirement often cuts people off from a significant social network — and that can be challenging to replace.
Being socially proactive is important
But there is good news. While isolation is bad for us, the flip side is also true. Higher levels of social connectedness are associated with better health, lower mortality rates and an enhanced quality of life.
There are factors, often beyond a person’s control, like illness or disability that can make social connectedness challenging. However, this is something many of us can do something about. As with other lifestyle modifications, a proactive approach is very important. For example, participation in religious groups and volunteering have been tied to overall health benefits. The level of engagement a person has in their leisure activities to be a predictor of social connectedness. Engaging more in activities and hobbies you truly enjoy, including learning new things, may be helpful, especially if those activities involve social interaction.
Social vs. ‘social’
It’s worth noting that this is not about the number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or LinkedIn connections you have. It’s not sufficient to simply increase the number of a social relationships, as that offers little health benefit. Having meaningful social relationships and interactions is what is most important. Building and maintaining social relationships takes time, especially meaningful ones. Relationships with friends and family can sometimes take a backseat to work and other demands. This research is a reminder that these meaningful relationships should not be taken for granted.
Implications for retirement: Diversify your social portfolio
Leaving the workplace means that many of your relationships will change. Successfully transitioning to life in retirement takes planning. For good reason, there is an emphasis on advance planning for the financial part of the equation. Likewise, just as it is smart to construct a diversified portfolio of investments for retirement, it’s also beneficial to build a diverse set of meaningful relationships apart from the workplace.
My takeaway from all this: it’s important to begin to cultivate some new relationships in advance of retirement, rather than starting that process after retirement. One way to begins is by taking a thoughtful approach to what activities to get involved with. This can set the stage for new relationships to evolve.
Joe Casey is an Executive Coach and Retirement Coach who brings extensive experience navigating transitions from his coaching work with clients and his own life and career. Learn more at retirementwisdom.com.
This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Health & Wealth.