This Friday, as with most Fridays since the start of lockdown, I’ll be playing poker with a group of friends from university.

Older readers might remember that back in those early lockdown days I wrote a column about it and how I’d adapted to the virtual card table the fastest.

I don’t know if you’ve looked up the meaning of hubris in the dictionary recently, but its updated definition reads ‘writing an article about winning at poker only to lose every game subsequently.’

But what I’ve lost in piles of poker chips, I’ve gained in terms of camaraderie. As the old adage has it, it’s not the winning that matters (he says from the bottom of the poker league table).

Being men of a certain age, none of us would admit to, you know, feelings, but that weekly dose of cards and chat has helped see the pandemic through.

Next Monday sees the return of the much vaunted ‘rule of six’, when groups of friends can gather once more to shiver in each other’s gardens. As with most of you reading this, I’m really looking forward to this relaxation of restrictions.

For all that Zoom calls have helped over the last few months, rekindling those relationships by seeing people in the flesh again feels important.

The significance of friends and friendships cannot be underestimated. I’m currently enjoying a fascinating new book by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar called Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships.

In the book, Dunbar describes the growing evidence that shows the correlation between the number of friends we have and both our susceptibility to disease and life expectancy: ‘having no friends or not being involved in community activities will dramatically affect how long you live,’ Dunbar claims.

One survey of over three million people in their sixties showed that factors like social isolation and feeling lonely increased your chances of dying by about 30 per cent.

Even before the pandemic, issues of isolation and loneliness had been a growing concern. Three in five adults in the US consider themselves lonely, while one in eight of us in the UK lack any close friends.

The events of the last year will only have served to cement those feelings of separation still further.

As the nation comes slowly blinking into the light out of the darkness of lockdown again, dealing with this problem might not seem a priority.

But left alone, the effects are going to ripple through for many years to come.

Over the next few weeks, try to make time for friends you haven’t seen or even been in touch with recently: it’ll be good for the soul, and for your body as well.

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