We all want to live a long and happy life. Isn’t that the point of living? I don’t know about you, but no one has ever formally taught me how to live longer or to be happier. But, what if the two were correlated? Now that would be something, to live longer by doing things that are fun and make us happy. No, it’s not eating ice cream while watching TV, don’t be that wishful, but research findings on how to do it are incredibly interesting.
Did you know that women in the developed world on average live 6-8 years longer than men? Why is that? That is the question that piqued the interest of researcher Susan Pinker who presented her findings in the Ted Talk, “The secret to living longer may be your social life.” Her answers were surprisingly like a 75-year study by Harvard University, presented by Robert Waldinger his Ted Talk “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.”
In the first presentation, Pinker took a trip to the island of Sardinia, off the coast of Italy. Here there are 10 times more centurions as there are in the rest of the world. Unlike the developed world, men and women here live to similar ages. Part of the reason why is in the architecture of the island, as seen below, which is one of limited space. This closeness leads to daily interaction between neighbors and friends.
As a fun surprise, whenever Pinker interviewed residents she always found a kitchen filled with family and friends. A kitchen party of sorts where multiple generations spent time together. Younger generations, who looked after parents and grandparents, did not see taking care of the elderly as a burden, but rather a privilege. As one resident put it, “Looking after this man is a huge privilege, this is my heritage.”
Now compare this close-knit community with others that you know where the life expectancy is shorter. Where the phrase, good fences make good neighbors is common. But what fun is that? If you can’t interact and enjoy the people who live closest to you then that is a problem. Some studies suggest that the impact of isolation and loneliness on health and mortality are of the same order of magnitude as such risk factors as high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking. Social isolation is a public health hazard of our time. Where people strive for a private estate they should really be aiming for a close knit community. When you think about it, what seems healthy about being by yourself?
A research study at Brigham Young university performed by Julian Holt-Lunstad shows the below factors affecting longevity, ranked in the most influential to the least. The study selected tens of thousands of middle-aged people. They asked many questions and recorded all the data. Then, they waited 7 years to see who was still alive.
Surprisingly, the two biggest factors increasing one’s chances of a longer life are both relationship based. Far ahead of exercise. Time to cancel the gym membership in favor of going for a hike with some friends.
Factors Affecting Longevity
Close relationships in the chart above are those with people that you can count on. Those that will lend you money or you will call when you need someone the most. Social integration is how often you have contact with people throughout the day and the interactions that result. For example, do you speak to your post man or the cashier at the grocery store?
The benefit comes from face to face interactions. Studies show that face to face contact releases chemicals that impact your mood and wellbeing. Oxytocin lowers your stress level and helps build trust. Dopamine gives a small high and reduces pain.
A Small Example
My wife and I recently had an hour to ourselves as our kids were at an event with their grandparents. We were having trouble on deciding what to do in such a short period of time. It was 30 degrees outside but a beautiful day otherwise. I suggested we go for a walk-through town. My wife initially said no way because if was so cold, but after some convincing and hats and gloves, off we went.
We did nothing special on the walk, but when we got home, we couldn’t be happier. The combination of spending time together, speaking with different shop owners, and the sunshine on our faces sent a rush of good feeling chemicals throughout our bodies. This was a small example of how a close relationship and social integration with your community can make a big impact on your well being.
Women Live Longer
As far as why women live longer? One reason is because women prioritize face to face contact. They seek interaction more than men. How many times will a woman confide in a close friend over something troubling in her life where a man will bottle it up and watch the game? Women are more likely to take the time to chat with people they meet throughout the day.
But how many relationships does it take to impact your health? Pinker found that it takes a minimum of three stable relationships to see the positive benefits. So, go out and call some old friend or make new ones, your life depends on it!
Now this is where it gets interesting. A completely independent study over a longer time frame showed surprisingly similar results. Both sets of findings where presented in independent Ted Talks and achieved through very different ways.
75 Year Study at Harvard
Waldinger is a researcher at Harvard university who is continuing the 75-year study of two groups of men. In 1938 the study began with 724 men. One group were sophomores at Harvard university and the other group was from the poorest neighborhoods in Boston.
The men went into all different types of careers, from doctors to brick layers. Some achieved the highest of aspirations, one even became president of the United States. Others went the other way.
Over the course of the study researchers interviewed the men and their families in person at their homes, blood was drawn, and they even spoke to their doctors. The clearest message that they determined from this study was that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
Waldinger spoke of three lessons.
- Social connections are good for us. Loneliness kills. More socially connected people to friends, family, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than those who are less connected.
- It’s the quality of your close relationships that counts. The people in the study that were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
- Good relationships not only protect our bodies, they also protect our brains. People in relationships where they really felt that they could count on the other person at age 80 had better memories.
What do better relationships look like?
The possibilities are endless.
- Replacing screen time with face to face time.
- Reinvigorating a stale relationship with doing something new together.
- Reaching out to that family member that you haven’t spoken to in years.
I like to practice what I call Luddite Night at least once a week. A Luddite is someone who shuns new technology. At Luddite Night at home we turn off all screens. No phones or TV allowed. We then play a game or work on a project together. The point is we are interacting and entertaining ourselves. Not sitting on the couch staring at a screen.
Prioritizing What is Important
Surveys of people in their 20s have asked the question, “What is most important to you? What will be your determining factor for success in your life? What do you need to prioritize?” To no surprise the answer most of the time is fame and fortune. I am guilty of the same thought process where in my 20s I worked endlessly, 75 hours per week for years to reach my goals of money and success.
Yet, none of the studies mentioned have shown money, being famous, or high achievement to have led to a satisfactory life. If your goal is to be happy and healthy, then what you need to prioritize is simple. Lean into your relationships and spend time with friends and family. I especially love to combine being outdoors, being active, and spending time with friends. Three birds with one stone!
The good life is built with good relationships.”Robert Waldinger