What keeps people living a long life? A system of living that gives the body the right information at the right times to properly regenerate itself.
We know what many parts of that system are. Food is one. Nutritional variety – whether the fruits, vegetables, and olive oil based diet of Mediterranean countries, or the fish, vegetables, fish and soy of East Asian cuisines, is connected with longer life.
So is physical activity. Humans are built to move. The longer we sit, the quicker we die.
Only truly appreciated in the last decade or so, rest is also a large part of the longevity/healthiness equation. Though passive rest in the form of sleep is only one of the many forms of rest, sleep itself is as necessary to life as food. Sleep deprive an animal long enough, and invariably it will die.
And now we appear to be rediscovering another major component in the system made for long life – social connection.
As E.M. Forster wrote more than a century ago – “only connect.” It’s very good advice if you want to live long and well.
Family, Friends, Acquaintances, Colleagues…
Jane Brody has a poignant story in the March 27, 2012 NY Times. She writes about the loss of her husband.
Life has changed greatly. Now she shoulders many responsibilities that used to be shared. She sweeps the sidewalk, deals with different insurance companies. She has adjusted, but still feels the loneliness almost all the time.
Brody then goes on to describe the seminal Berkman-Syme studies of the 1970’s showing that social connection is a major factor in survival. She also quotes John Robbins’ book “Healthy at 100,” on the importance of social engagement in long term survival.
And for experiencing pleasure in life, too.
Why Social Connection Works
There are many reasons why social connection is so important to human survival. They include:
- We are profoundly social animals. Genes involving primate sociality go back 50 million years or more.
- We survive as a society. When people don’t connect well, they are less healthy, and provoke more violence. Stephen Pinker has recently described some of these facts in his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”.
- Social connection lowers stress and stress hormones, often in a profound way.
- Healthy behaviors are better propagated and supported when there is more social connection and cohesion – friends and colleagues can reinforce healthy actions.
- Economies and communities are more functional when there is greater social connection.
- Direct epidemiologic evidence that more social connection leads to less heart attacks, less strokes, less depression, and in some cases less tumors.
Socializing and Information
Einstein often spoke of the “optical delusion” of individuality. There are now seven billion of us on the planet. We depend on many of them – including thousands we may never meet – for our food, shelter, energy, and water.
Even our sense of hope.
The World Health Organization describes “physical, mental and social well-being” as their definition of health.
But people do even better when they live for ideas greater than themselves – especially when they feel part of a society whose values they believe in.
Social connection helps facilitate those ideas. Though any system of ideas can potentially be misused, social connection also allows people to see the larger picture – of people progressing together to build more equitable, creative and fulfilling communities.
People like to live for projects and ideas larger than themselves. They want to think that society will get “better” – that their children and children’s children will have an easier time and a more interesting, more engaged life.
Social connection aids this ability to believe and in engage in projects that may improve the future. It also helps people get “healthier.”
In all the meanings of the term.
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