It’s the homestretch of the Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge. Today, a reminder that friendships matter. Plus, an easy exercise to show the people in your life that you care.
The Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge is the newest challenge from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. All week, we’re sharing fun and easy activities to help you strengthen your body, refresh your spirit and connect with the things you love. After all, when you make your own happiness a priority, it’s a win for your overall health.
Ever feel all alone or lost in a crowd? We’ve all been there. More than 40% of older adults regularly experience loneliness — even when they’re among other people, according to a 2018 study from the University of California, San Francisco. And it’s unfortunately common for those over 65 to go about their day without a meaningful conversation with a friend.
“We may be super connected virtually, but people are feeling more alone than at any other time in history,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania.
That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic — and it still rings true today, says Smedley. A 2020 report in Global Health Research and Policy noted that the social isolation and loneliness associated with the pandemic will have a “long-term and profound impact on older adults’ health and well-being.”
If you can relate, here’s the first thing Smedley wants you to know: Don’t blame yourself for feeling lonely. People often don’t want to admit that they’re feeling lonely. “And that’s just not fair to yourself,” she says. “Lots of people feel lonely. We need to take away the blame and self-doubt.”
Instead, approach loneliness like a health issue that can — and deserves to — be addressed. “When you can begin to shift your mindset, you can begin to regain a sense of empowerment,” says Smedley.
Loneliness and your health
Making that mind switch is key, because even though loneliness isn’t your fault, it can have a big impact on your health as you age, according to a 2021 report in the Journal of Emergency Nursing. A few key takeaways from the report show that loneliness:
- Is as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
- Doubles the risk of death
- Leads to nearly 70% more hospitalizations in patients with heart failure
- Lowers immunity
- Disrupts sleep patterns
- Speeds up age-related decline in memory powers and increases the risk of dementia
“Loneliness is also a very robust predictor of depression,” says Brenna Renn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “People who are lonely often pull away from social connections, which can lead to depression and anxiety. So they engage less and feel even worse. It can turn into a vicious cycle.”
How Renew Positivity can help you stay connected
With Renew Positivity, every day you can log in to read articles on a variety of topics, including ideas and tips to nurture close relationships. It’s part of Renew by UnitedHealthcare, which is included with most plans. Sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Renew Positivity in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.
Friendship: The loneliness cure
Luckily, one of the best cures for the pain of loneliness is finding a friend. “Friendship is a powerful mood booster and one of the most important predictors of emotional well-being,” says Smedley.
Having one or more close ties helps lift your mood and outlook on life and cuts down on stress. People who feel connected to others have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, according to a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
That makes friendship essential to a happier, healthier life. Seems like a simple solution, but how do you begin? Easy, says Smedley: “Start small.”
Today: Write a letter — and put a stamp on it
Aside from holiday cards, many people have gotten out of the habit of sending notes and letters to people we care about. But Smedley is a big fan of writing old-fashioned letters regularly.
Today, your challenge is to pick one person you’ve drifted away from and write a short but sweet letter. It could be somebody from your childhood or career days, a neighbor down the street or a friend you used to meet at the gym.
“The process of writing a letter — connecting with somebody through words —can be very satisfying. Just the act of writing can make you feel less lonely,” says Smedley.
Plus, it can pay a big happiness dividend. In a 2020 survey conducted by the U.S. Postal Service, nearly two-thirds of respondents reported that receiving cards and letters from loved ones lifted their spirits and helped them feel more connected.
To help you get started, the Day 6 section of the Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide includes several sample opening lines. You can download your copy of the guide here.
A few tips:
- Don’t worry about the length of your letter. Short or long, the important thing is to write from the heart and what feels comfortable to you.
- Keep your message friendly and light. Did you see a funny cartoon in the paper or online? Print it out and tuck it inside the envelope.
- If practical, think about suggesting a casual meeting for coffee or a walk in the park.
- Wait for a reply. Half the fun is getting a letter back in the mail or an unexpected phone call in response.
Of course, snail mail isn’t your only option. Sending an email or a text can have a similar impact. The important thing is to reach out.
Writing a letter is a great first step. Try it and see what happens. It might kindle a new friendship or even revive an old one. Most important, it can help you break out of a cycle of loneliness and keep you on your new path to feeling happier and healthier.
Keep up with the challenge: