Friendships and Connections: How Many Do We Need?


One of the things you are told before you retire is to make sure that you have enough friendships and social connections outside of work. Studies have shown that friendships lengthen your life span, and that if you don’t have these connections, your mental and physical health will likely suffer.

Oh great… one more thing to add to my health To Do’s.  If it’s anything like my attempts to improve my quantity and quality of sleep, lest my brain clog up with plaque, I’m doomed.

The thing is, I’m rarely lonely. Is this friendship health requirement more of a need for people who aren’t already entertained by their creative pursuits, books, dogs, and walks through the woods? I do need people… I just don’t need to be with them a whole lot. Perhaps for humans like me, the connections found through email and social networks, and occasional real life get togethers and phone calls is enough.

I attend the same aerobics classes at the health club every week and have found that to be a way to get out of the house and develop relationships. Granted, they are relationships-lite, but they still make me feel connected. These women know whom in the group has just lost her husband and when someone is missing because they had surgery. Sympathy and Get Well cards go around and are signed and delivered by the group. And if it’s someone’s birthday that week, there’s a treat brought in to go with the free coffee on Fridays for club members over 55.

Still, there are times that I wish I didn’t have to rack my brain for someone to call when I feel a need to talk. I converse with people so rarely, I don’t want to suddenly call someone while I’m standing on the ledge of a building, expecting them to be all reassuring and talk me down.

And I’d like to be able to spontaneously phone a friend to see if they can run out for lunch or to a Thrift store on the spur of the moment.  I wouldn’t expect people to always say yes, but I’d love the feeling that it was okay to ask.

Everything seems to require so much planning and scheduling these days. I understand the need — I myself like to know my plans for an entire week and am not crazy about them changing — but still, spontaneous, call-me-anytime moments, these are the things I dream of when I think of friendship. Perhaps this is just nostalgia.

In Jenna Kutcher’s podcast episode Listen If You’re Lonely: Adult Friendships Are Hard. she has several suggestions about making new friends and nurturing the friendships you already have. My favorite idea was to use brief voice messages, something like “you don’t have to respond but I wanted you to know that I’m thinking of you.” I didn’t even know there was a voice and video option in my text message application. What I really need is a young friend to let me in on such things. I still haven’t figured out the why and how of Instagram stories…

But I have figured out the application Marco Polo, which allows you to record video messages to an individual or group, who also has the application on their phone. I belong to a writers group that uses Marco Polo to record our goals for the week and respond to each other’s messages.  I thought I’d hate videoing myself, but it’s growing on me. You get a better feel for people and what they are communicating with a visual. The other thing we use is Google Hangouts to meet for discussions twice a month.

So does using the wonders of video messages and online meetups count as social connection? I think it does, but I still think we do need in-person friendships as well.

So my conclusion, although not scientifically tested, is that the right balance of social and alone time is a very individual thing. Our needs are not the same, despite what studies show about what our health requires.

We don’t have to worry about it if we aren’t social whizzes and don’t want to be. That has been a concern for me for most of my life, a worry that I’m trying to cross off my list for good. Feeling socially defective is much more stressful than simply accepting that I’m okay as I am. On the other hand, I love the electricity of discovering a new connection with someone. So I’ll keep my eyes open onto the world and remain curious about the people that I don’t know as well as the people that I do.

Any other loners out there? Do the studies and articles about how socially connected you should be concern you? Or are you happy with your level of social life?

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  1. Loner here, always have been even though I have this guy who has started being with me almost every hour of the day! But I still feel like I do more than okay without a big amount of relationships. I like all your thoughts and ideas but I have not made it to videos of myself yet … the voice messages left at random sound like a very nice gesture.

    I really enjoy your writing, in case I haven’t mentioned that lately.

  2. Thank you Susan. I consider myself a loner as well. I wish I knew whether these studies took into consideration people who were happy spending much of their time alone versus people who feel lonely. I would think that would make a big difference.

  3. This is such a great topic to talk about and one that has been front and center for me during these past 10 years after learning of my father’s Alzheimers. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read that scientists and others indicate that the key to good mental health (as well as warding off diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia) is social interaction. Just like you mentioned in your posting. I’m not a loner, but as I’ve gotten older I like my alone time even more and more and that kinda worries me. I do think it’s somewhat individual, but I also can see a lot of merit into staying connected to face to face encounters. Just like writing, it keeps our brains active…and for that very reason I try to socialize even when I don’t have the energy for it. It requires reading the news (as well as politics – ugh) just to be half way intelligent in having conversation with people. So all this keeps the brain active and that’s what’s important to me. Great topic! We seem to be on the same page in many areas of this thing called aging!

    1. Hi Robin. I don’t know why I keep missing some notifications that someone has commented here. I apologize for my late response.

      I can relate to the fear of Alzheimers, although you’ve had a much more direct experience with it with care taking. My fear comes from my 23andMe test results, which say I have the gene that increases my likelihood of getting Alzheimers. I think my mother may have had it in her last year of life, but being adopted, I didn’t know her well enough and wasn’t informed of her health deeply enough to know one way or the other. I wonder whether all the information on what contributes to Alzheimers and what to do and what to avoid just makes us more stressed and worried. Still, I’ll keep my brain busy learning and doing, which isn’t a hardship for me since I’ve always loved learning new things. But community? That’s more of a challenge.

  4. I listen to a lot of podcasts but had not heard of this one. This episode sounds like it is right up my alley too – I found you through your comment on Storyaday,org! I am a fellow short story writer.

    1. Nice to meet you Tammy! I’m looking forward to the September Storyaday challenge. I actually am new to writing fiction or short stories. I’ve written memoir, essays, non-fiction and blog posts up to now. But I’m looking forward to trying something new to stretch my brain in a new direction.

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