My father was ecstatic when he retired from the US Postal Service after 30 years. But it didn’t take long before he began to miss the packlike male bonding he took for granted: group lunches, team projects, water cooler banter. When they were gone, it left a big hole in his life.
“Men acquire friends through shared experiences like sports, the military, and work,” says Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, a psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “When one source is eliminated, men tend to lose some of those friends over time and have to find other ways to connect with people and fill those missing gaps.”
Men need to recreate their former workplace even more as they age. Loneliness is one of the greatest health risks they face, and much research has linked a stronger social life with a lower risk of heart disease and depression and greater immune function. Worklike engagements also can sharpen the brain skills they used in their jobs — for example, comprehension (understanding information), analysis (breaking down complex scenarios into easily understood parts), and evaluation (judging whether a decision is correct).
Getting into group dynamics
A good way to recreate the social circle of work is to join a men’s group, such as a walking club, a golf or bowling league (like my dad did), a card or chess club, or a class at an adult education center. This also helps re-create a worklike environment that emphasizes skills like team building and support, leadership, and performance.
“Find something you enjoy, and odds are there are others who share your interest,” says Dr. Schwartz. Also, make sure to give it enough time to enable you to bond with others, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t feel a connection. “Try another similar club or league, or one with a different focus. Eventually, you’ll find like-minded friends.”
Often these social gatherings occur once or twice a week, so you can ease into the setting without feeling overwhelmed. In many cases, Dr. Schwartz adds, “they also give you the chance to come and go as you please, which lowers the pressure of trying to fit in.”
Schedule a meeting
If you already have friends who could make up a workplace group, but have trouble getting together, take the initiative and schedule a mandatory meeting. “Most men respond well to routine, so set up a regular get-together for coffee or lunch at the same place, ideally a setting that’s designed for conversation and discussion,” says Dr. Schwartz. “At the end, make sure that the next meeting is already scheduled before everyone leaves.”
Another way to stay connected is to launch a workplace-like project, suggests Dr. Schwartz. He knows of a group of retired fishermen from Gloucester, Mass, who, once they retired, decided to build a boat together. “The boat was secondary,” he says. “They didn’t know any other way to get together, so they focused on their common interest and found a project to do.”
You can replicate the same camaraderie without it being too technical, like a group volunteer project that doesn’t require everyone to have specific skills, like building and maintaining a community garden.
Another aspect of worklike gatherings is that they re-create a safe environment where men can share their problems and get needed support, advice, and guidance with no judgment.
“When people work together, they almost always begin to share personal thoughts and feelings over time,” says Dr. Schwartz. “They start to know each other and feel known by the men they work with. That’s something that really matters to almost all of us.”