Our city hosted the Santa Clarita Marathon a few weeks ago. On the sidelines, family and friends cheered the runners who crossed the finish line with a sense of accomplishment and relief on their faces. At the end of the day the Santa Clarita Runners Club, which helped to administer the race, met for a celebratory beer.
In my newly acquired identity as an SC Runner, I joined the group whose festivities were already in progress. As I gazed around the room, listening to the storytelling and watching the laughter, the thought crossed my mind that some of these friends have been running together for a decade or more.
They bantered, shared memories and made plans for future runs. Old and new members alike shared the camaraderie of being with like-
minded friends. A warm, contented joy washed over me.
Being connected to a group is essential for healthy human functioning. Humans thrive in social units and have evolved to need trusting and supportive relationships.
Whatever our values, passions or lifestyle, we need a group to identify with and feel valued by. Not only do we depend on the group for support, but we also enjoy the feeling of extending our support and friendship to others. Belonging to a group and feeling a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves provides meaning and purpose to our lives.
Researchers have long known about the health benefits of “social capital” — the goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social interaction among individuals in a group that build trust, connection, and participation. Exploring new hobbies, volunteering and taking on new challenges with companions help to keep the brain neurons firing.
According to a 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, staying socially active is as important to our health as staying physically active. The study reveals that spending time enjoying leisure activities with friends and loved ones protects cognitive skills and keeps them intact longer.
Staying socially connected and engaged with life becomes even more important as we grow older and not just for mental health reasons. Studies show that people who don’t or can’t maintain connections with friends, family and community will experience greater numbers of chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
What’s particularly difficult for seniors is that both health and social capital tend to decline as they age. As seniors end their careers, they may feel less relevant or feel that life has a decreased sense of purpose. Losing friends to illness, death or relocation can also lead to a sense of isolation.
Life is about relationships. All of us possess an innate need for meaningful social engagement with others. We thrive in groups that foster close connections with people of mutual interests. Actively participating and bringing our best to a group of people with whom we feel comfortable, who care about us, who endure our shortcomings and support us through hardships is a vital part of living a fulfilled life.
To be happy and healthy, find your tribe.
Mary Petersen is a retired COC English instructor, 30-year SCV resident and two-time breast cancer survivor.