Do you have a social network? Of course you do. And I’m not talking about Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. I’m talking about your family, friends and community who are part of your everyday life. The people whose voice you know on the phone, those who you have thanksgiving dinner with, those who support you in tough times and those who share your joy when things are on a roll. When we’re young, our social networks are limited to the people we go to school with, our immediate neighbours and our relatives who we see. As we grow and mature, we become involved in social networks with people who do the same things we do: sports, arts, church and academic interests.
As we raise our families, our social network grows to include the parents of children whose kids are involved in the same things as we are; as well, we start to connect with people who we work with. As the kids get older and we get some of our own time back, we began to add people who have the same interests as us. That is the basic building blocks of your social network: a lifetime of friendships, acquaintances and relatives woven together to create what is your world.
And then we approach retirement. We have time on our hands, nowhere to go in hurry and a desire to deepen our relationships – then a funny thing happens: our social network begins to shrink. The kids have moved away (and have not yet moved back), friends start to move on – maybe heading South in the winter or to locations that are closer to family. People pass on; we lose touch with Aunt Mabel and Uncle Frank. All of a sudden, that broad network of people who have been there all along starts to thin out. The phone rings less, the Christmas cards stop coming and the email addressed directly to you is less frequent.
You have two options at this point: continue to watch your address list shrink, or put yourself out there and make some new connections. Making new friends is hard, especially when you’re set in your ways and struggle to open up or begin again with new people. It’s the same for everybody though: a lifetime of experiences has taught us to tread slowly, protect our fragile inner-selves and not trust strangers easily.
We need to learn to treat this much like driving into a curve: counter-intuitively. We may brake a little before we reach the curve, but once in the curve, braking will only make our turn less stable. As we come out of the curve, a little acceleration smoothes it out. So it is with social networks: just when we think it’s time to hide in our shell, we need to put ourselves out there and meet new people. It’s time to build networks based on the things we care about, our activities and interests. Finally we have the opportunity to meet people who have things in common with us and the maturity and experience to move slowly. Our social network is no longer dictated by the needs of others or necessity; they are now there to be built on the things that really matter to us.
It’s a fact that engaged people with healthy social networks live longer and have healthier lives. They spend less money on healthcare, have less downtime and feel a greater sense of fulfillment. So the next time you meet someone, don’t let guarded optimism be your first reaction, look upon the meeting as a fresh opportunity to expand your network and a chance to improve your life.
Email Jeff with your comments or questions: [email protected]