Accepting and Transforming Loneliness for Healthy Aging
by Charles LaFond – ISR Senior Development Director
Loneliness and isolation are not identical, but together, they can be as bad for one’s health as smoking cigarettes. Isolation means being by oneself, whereas loneliness is the pain that may come from unwanted isolation. In my experience, one aspect of healthy aging includes considering loneliness. We lose touch with friends as some slow down and even die. Neurologically, new science shows that as we age, introversion increases. That, combined with earlier bedtimes, general fatigue, poor hearing, dehydration, and lingering effects from COVID’s distancing, all conspire to increase barriers to socializing.
Single men, 60 and older, are shown to be the loneliest men in the United States.1 In Europe, a “Woodshed” movement began to gather men in sheds, making things from wood and connecting men in friendship and conversation. However, in the United States, studies indicate that men tend to go to their own woodshed, isolated and alone, to occupy themselves.
And it’s not just older men. New studies show that most men begin to feel lonely around age 35. I have noticed that men isolate mainly due to insecurities, oscillating between aggression towards others and passivity in which many hide from the world. Conversely, women are much better at connecting and staying connected to friends for companionship.2
As a man entering his 60s in a matter of weeks, I have become curious about male aging, friendship, and loneliness. The work of Harvard professor Dr. Arthur C. Brooks has informed my thinking about aging. (See: From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.) As many sages before him have said, happiness is mainly about detaching from how we think things “should” be, accepting how things actually are, and then taking action to improve what we can.
Many men have had early careers in which they were at the height of their most innovative thinking, with mental capacities peaking in their 20s and 30s. It is believed that as we age, the “fluid” thinking of one’s youth does not exist later in life, when an aging brain shifts, quite naturally and biologically, from “fluid” thinking to “crystalline” thinking.
Two curves exist in human brain development. The first curve happens before one’s late 30s to late 40s. Many call the first curve the “success curve” when our thinking is most agile and aggressive. But what neurology tells us is that change is the only sure thing in life. (Ok, and taxes.) Our brains change. And so, part of happiness in aging seniors is about accepting change – accepting this second curve in which we go from “worker” to “thinker.” In the second curve, our intelligence changes from “fluid intelligence” to “crystalline intelligence.”
The change is inevitable. The challenge is accepting the change as we age so that we are happier and more connected as we move into the second half of life. To do so, we must break our addiction to our youth’s fluid “making phase” and fully accept and embrace our crystalline “teaching phase” and its gifts of connection, relationship-building, conversation, and storytelling.
Amongst many foundational human needs, having a sense of purpose is very important to most people, especially men, who tend to get their self-worth from what they produce or earn. Like all of us, men who seek healthy aging need to find a way to make meaning out of the second half of their lives by connecting with others. By turning from product to people, and I don’t just mean gathering at the local pub, though I love that, I mean deciding how to accept and use our new “second curve” for the good of others.
Photo by Dennis Browne