You’ll hear them first. A scrappy group of old folks cracking themselves up at a table behind the short side of the bar, their own intimate enclave where they retell stories they’ve been retelling to one another for decades. One of the men gets up and walks in a circle like he’s holding a beach ball between his knees to deliver a punch line to a story while the others wipe tears from their eyes. They’re in their 80s and having a better time than anyone else in the place.
They’ve been having a better time together for more than 60 years. And it’s paid off. Reviews of more than 148 different studies show that long, meaningful relationships reduce mortality risk.
Originally, it’d been Carl and Zoe (my grandparents), and Ken and Nancy, Dick and Nancy, John and Janet, the Haaralas, the Carlsons. The Happy Gang. It was Carl who started calling them that, because every time this crew of since-retired teachers and school administrators and counselors got together, he noticed that everyone seemed so, well, happy.
The men started their careers in education around the same time, all in their mid-20s to early 30s, all living within 25 miles of one another, all with a sensibility that bent toward mischief. They joined a bowling league together. This was about 1957.
They eventually brought their wives around and found everyone got along. Better, they had a great time. So bowling became dinner at each other’s houses. That turned into late-night card parties that turned into vacations with the families. And the vacation became a still-standing appointment in Florida every spring break and extended trips all over the country throughout retirement.
The gang rang in the millennium together, all not quite sure what was going to happen but knowing they all wanted to be around one another mixing cocktails if something did. In a 50-year blink, a friendship was forged, a mix of ease and effort and humor and appreciation and openness.
They do the work—that doesn’t feel like work—of friendship.
They’d reach for one another as easily as you’d reach for a favorite book. As children grew older and retirement came, and members of the Happy Gang—or even children of members—got sick and passed on, the others still showed up and still made plans, and checked in, and went to the card parties.
They do the work—that doesn’t feel like work—of friendship, have done so all these years, because it makes life more fun, more fulfilling. So Carl and Zoe now drive 150 miles south once a month, at 80-some years old, to make it to a card game, or to a dinner where they’ll sit at their spot and hear Ken tell the story again about lighting his hair on fire as a vice-principal years ago. Because that’s how they keep the friendship (and each other) going.
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