February 25, 2020
When it comes to building friendships, many men are reliant on social structures that provide the proximity needed to facilitate male bonding. Thinks sports, work or military service.
But as we learn more about the impact that our social life has on our health and well-being, friendships take on a whole new importance.
According to the National Institute for Health Care Management, one in five Americans say they feel lonely or socially isolated – and this lack of meaningful social connections can have life-threatening consequences. Loneliness raises the risk of premature death as much as smoking or obesity.
For men, this message is particularly troubling. As men age, their traditional sources of friendships fade, making a replacement strategy critical. Finding friends that offer real trust – and putting in the time to build such relationships – seems to be our shortcoming.
Yes, we may have a number of buddies with whom we are friendly, grab a beer, hit the gym or talk sports, but the key word mentioned above is “meaningful.” While it is important to have a robust social network representing all of the dimensions of your life, relationships that contain a level of confidentiality and trust ultimately become key. The answer emerging from many quarters is conscious attention to relationship building and structures to insure sustainability. Nothing happens without focus and commitment.
When I look at my own life, I can count on one hand the number of “close” friends I have as distinguished from business or community-based relationships. The overwhelming majority of my texts, emails and phone calls are with business colleagues and individuals within my professional network.
Among my “close” friends, way too many days go by between dinners or some form of communication. One friend is retired in Florida. Another is immersed in his business and an endless chain of family commitments. A third connects with me for Eagles games, but grabbing dinner with our spouses seems to be an elusive goal. We all have the best of intentions but just can’t seem to pull it together.
The notion that somehow, magically, the pace of professional life slows down as we age is a misnomer. It doesn’t.
For me, while I love my job and draw energy from the challenge, work is as busy as it’s been at any point in my life. As a result, discretionary time is occupied with my wife, running errands, tending to the needs of my 89-year-old mother, trying to find time to grab dinner with my two sons and searching for some quality time with my grandson.
At this point, I’m clearly in a push to maximize my positioning for retirement and the well-being of my loved ones. There’s not a whole lot of time left for relationship building outside of these personal “must-dos.”
Right now, my lack of close and readily accessible friends doesn’t have me concerned. I’m engaged in enough relationships in these other aspects of life that I actually look forward to a few minutes of quiet time. Loneliness doesn’t even enter my mind.
However, it’s just me and my wife in the house – and she’s got an active life of her own. I’m find myself coming up short on occasions when a personal friend might fit the bill; whether a 5K race partner or a sounding board for dealing with life.
Are these experiences simply a product of a harried lifestyle in which function and family leave no room for any other friends? Or, are they early signs that I need to get my act together and expand my personal network? Am I looking at a problem in the years to come? Do I have a gap in my social well-being that could ultimately impact my health?
If you see the value in having a network of friends — with some closer than others — then the answer is simple, but not easy. Making a conscious effort to build your social network may force you way outside of your comfort zone. However, relationships don’t just happen. They take time, effort and a little strategy. If it sounds like work, it is.
Larry Alton, a writer for The Good Men Project, recommends that adult men looking to make friends become an active participant in local organizations such as fraternal groups, business networking groups, churches, sports leagues and hobby groups. I agree that these are excellent sources of relationships that can remain on the outer edge of your social sphere or grow into more personal dimensions of your life. They represent the structure that I referenced earlier.
My advice, based on the research I’ve conducted on healthy-behaving men, includes these three tips:
This may seem a little too structured, but you can’t find a friend if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Reflect on your interests, priorities, day-to-day routines, and all of the factors which can influence compatibility and sustainability. Then create a mental set of specifications. It will make your process much more effective.
Reflect in all of your business, civic, social and other activities and, using your specifications, determine if there is anyone among these groups that shares your values and interests.
I get it. This whole thing sounds a little weird and more like some corporate marketing task. It is. You’re simply marketing yourself. Though this is clearly out of your comfort zone, be fearless. There’s nothing but upside, new experiences and a boost to your long-term health and well-being.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50."