How a Middle-Aged Introvert Got His Groove Back


It began as ideas, good and bad, often do: in a bar.

My soccer club — a group of mostly middle-aged dads in suburban New Jersey — was enjoying its weekly post-match pint when we began talking about how fun it would be to play against a similar team in Mexico City, where several of our players grew up. The idea gradually gained momentum until, suddenly, one day last December, we were buying airplane tickets.

But let me back up: A few years ago, I moved to Madison, N.J., after decades in New York City. I knew no one there outside of my family. Busy with work and getting my daughter settled, I didn’t have much time to think about socializing. As an introvert who works from home, that was never going to be easy. As a 50-something, I’d met my closest friends decades earlier. Did I even need new ones?

What I did want to do was bring my soccer habit with me from the city. Eventually, via my neighbor Andrea, who was born in Italy, I found a regular pickup game. The first match was enjoyable and the group seemed affable, so I kept showing up.

Mostly expats, my new teammates ranged in age and background, and I enjoyed being exposed to their perspectives. The youngest, Jorge, an elementary schoolteacher originally from Colombia, was not quite half my age, and we joked about my adopting him.

As we got to know one another better, we became more like a team — complete with jerseys with our custom “Madison Soccer and Beers” logo — and our activities started to expand. We’d gather for a cookout or go mountain biking; we even tried paintball. Soon, I was telling the guys how lucky I felt to have found them, and they were saying equally sappy stuff.

After a few months, I began to realize my hunger to play soccer wasn’t entirely about the game. I was looking for connection. But as the trip to Mexico loomed, I began to have a few doubts: I was the oldest guy by some 10 years — would I be able to keep up? Did I really want to share an Airbnb with 14 others? And would I get roasted for my extreme sleep routine: eye mask, mouth tape, wall of white noise?

What if it turned out I didn’t actually like the guys that much? What if they didn’t like me?

“All relationships require risk,” Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, told me when I went poking around for data on men and friendship. “You always risk being uncomfortable with someone, or getting too close to them. If we become so risk-averse in getting to know each other, we lose out on opportunities for greater intimacy.”

In a study that Dr. Hall conducted, it took subjects 40 to 60 hours spent together to describe themselves as casual friends, and more to become “good” or “close” friends. That sort of time is relatively easy to find for young adults. But for older guys like me, Dr. Hall noted, “it’s not developmentally typical to be spending a ton of time with your friends, without partners, without children.”

How, then, to cultivate friendships? One pathway, he told me, is to find a “group of people who share a common interest, who will show up week after week to share a hobby.” You may not click equally with everyone, but you’re stocking the pond of potentially deeper friendships.

In my research, I learned that men are feeling the effects of the “friendship recession” harder than women are. And there is some evidence from the travel industry that women travel more than men. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that a guys trip was juvenile or might devolve into a re-creation of “The Hangover.”

Taking a trip with the boys (or playing soccer at all, for that matter) suddenly struck me as trivial. But Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University who specializes in studying loneliness, told me that being more socially connected has clear health benefits, and not just on the soccer field.

“The more you feel supported by your social network,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, “the lower your blood pressure, the lower your resting heart rate.” And that includes casual friendships. “We get different kinds of needs and goals fulfilled from different kinds of relationships,” she said.

And so, Mexico.

As it happened, the trip, arranged with great care by Alberto (whose family still lives in Mexico City), was a success. We strolled through the city’s streets and museums, ate enormous lunches, sang with mariachis in the gondolas in the canals of Xochimilco, cheered for wrestlers at the lucha libre and roamed the ancient site of Teotihuacan.

We played our soccer game at the spiffy training site of Cruz Azul, a professional club, (thanks to our well-connected teammate Victor), and joined our opponents afterward in a lavish barbacoa feast. We gave each other nicknames (Shaun, one of two U.S.-born guys on the trip, was dubbed “Tío Sam” — Uncle Sam — for his light gray hair and goatee).

Were there times I longed to change the music, or retreat back to a quiet hotel room? For sure. But packing 15 of us into an Airbnb — or our rolling disco of a van, steadfastly driven by Alberto’s uncle Jesús — created a sort of forced intimacy, as well as a need to adapt. Even the moments of inconvenience, like a brief power outage at the Airbnb, added to the fun.

By some metrics — lack of sleep, overconsumption of food and alcohol — the trip was the unhealthiest thing I’ve done in ages. But few things have left me feeling better.

At one point, Iñaky, a native Spaniard who runs a construction company, said a friend had seen photos he was posting online and asked, “What, are you on a bachelor party or something?” No, we weren’t marking anyone’s transition to a new stage of life. We were simply celebrating our own deepening friendship.

We’re already planning next year’s trip.

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