A friend recently sent me an article which proclaimed that a blogger won’t be healthier or happier based on how many posts he/she writes or how many followers they have. Well, well. I sighed. Then I immediately thought . . . I’d be way happier with more readers. But I digress. The shared article wasn’t geared at criticizing bloggers. Reviewing study findings, it proposed that the same could be said for many other professions or life situations.
A happy and long life is not based on how much dough is in your 401K; although I have always been willing to be a guinea pig for a study in which my nest egg was doubled in size to see how it would affect me emotionally. I’ll raise my hand to be a subject for that if anyone knows of such research being planned. Still, the article said that long lived happiness is not founded on many of the common suppositions of success. It isn’t — the books you have published, performances you were seen in, events you organized /spoke at, how many companies sought you out for employment or how much of a VIP you are/were considered to be in your community. The point is one you have read before. I have seen it repeatedly. Now we have more evidence. Based on a 75-year long Harvard Longevity study, the research determined that more than anything else, there is one secret for a happy fulfilling life – good social relationships.
This study isn’t alone in its findings either. QualityHealth.com published 22 Ways to Predict Your Life Span all based on numerous studies reviewed by their medical advisory board. One benefit/risk point is marital status. Those in martial relationships can add more years to their potential longevity score. Married men are awarded an additional 5 years to their scores; married women 2 years. I won’t venture any theories as to that difference, although some have speculated that women are more social than men, thus they embrace other avenues of support. Another extra point from the 22 Ways is awarded for a relationship with friends and/or family. Perchance your definition of such a relationship is different than theirs, so this particular advisory board simplifies those guidelines for clarity. You earn an additional 3 years to your baseline life expectancy if you see either friends or family at least 3 times/week. I suspect that is more often than most of us would expect – or that we do. But according to them, that’s the goal.
Lest I forget to acknowledge this, there are indeed numerous alternative influences on longevity (aside from above or from safety). Aspects include situations such as affluence (more money, longer life), education (more education, longer life), where you live, the types of work you have done or do, what you eat, how you move or exercise. On and on. But perhaps none as vital as social connections.
Online social connections (as in ‘social media’) are more controversial in regard to their benefit. Scholars at the University of California at San Diego (2016) researched this issue and determined that those who keep in touch with friends on Facebook do tend to live longer. However, they included a caveat that other researchers share, and warn about – online interactions are only beneficial if they are supplemental and don’t supplant our face-to-face connections. It is more difficult to process our own emotions and the stresses we face while in a virtual environment, which has less real-time give-and-take compared to having a leisurely cup of tea with a friend. [Yes, yes…….or coffee.]
Impressively, these personal (face-to-face) interactions are climbing in prestige due to longevity research results and advantages. One study in the PLOS (Public Library of Science) Medical Journal showed a 50% lower risk of dying when people have strong ties to either family or friends. Really, 50%? Why? Doesn’t that sound like an over-statement? It relates strongly, and directly, to negative findings about loneliness.
In contrast to good social relationships, loneliness is lethal; possibly increasing the risk of an early death by 45%. Loneliness:
- weakens immune system,
- raises blood pressure,
- increases risk of heart attack,
- increases risk of stroke.
Loneliness may appear out of our control, yet there are some small, but effective, actions we can take. While reaching out can feel difficult to initiate ourselves, unfortunately we simply can’t always depend on others to do it for us. Sadly, without any action, loneliness can also quickly spiral into depression and stop you in your tracks. But pushing yourself just to take a ‘reach-out-baby-step’, whether you want to or not, whether your mind is ready or not, can (just by acting out the motions) usher in the beginning of a change in feeling. At least a start.
For a little bit of inspiration, perhaps revisit these titles Finding Friends as an Older Adult Requires a Different Approach or The Happiness Trap, How to Avoid the Snares. You might plan to search out groups formed for things you ALREADY enjoy; line dancing, crafts, book clubs, acting troupes, walking groups, history discussions, amateur scrabble tournaments, painting, gardening, political or civic organizations or activities at the community gym. Additionally, events especially for older folks, like classes at a local OLLI – Osher Lifelong Learning institute, or educational travels with companies highlighting those travelers over 50, like Road Scholar or Grand Circle Tours / OAT are easy ways to socialize with people similar in age. Not to mention that the senior center – like the Buick you may drive to get there – is not your parent’s senior center.
When we reference ‘social connections,’ the goal is not necessarily marriage or an ‘in-house’ companion. One of the psychiatrists who directed the Harvard study (from 1972 -2004), George Vaillant, made a statement about two of the fundamental themes. “One is love,” he said, but “the other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” Unfortunately, as I do, you might know – and love – such a person. It can be frustrating and disheartening.
There is much written on the first part: finding, maintaining, keeping love. Less is explored on the second. Even if not an extreme example, like me, you may find yourself avoiding certain commitments or invitations. Our typical response of ‘No thanks….. I’m busy….. I’ll take a raincheck…’ can truly be “pushing love away” and shortening one’s life. We may need to question ourselves about this. Rationalizing ‘aloneness’ because it has the allure of simplicity can leave us in denial of our actual loneliness status.
Many psychiatrists explain that this ‘pushing’ behavior is more common after an event from the well-known life stressors list: death of a loved one, losing a job, or any trauma for which coping is difficult. Still, our habit of aloneness or ‘pushing’ can happen any time, trauma or not, and in big – or little – ways. Instead of letting others help us cope a bit, we resist their contact, refuse them nicely, and all the while be ultimately “pushing love away.”
The Good Part
Here’s the best news. We don’t need a room full of good friends – just a couple/few close ones that we are comfortable with in sharing intimate or personal ideas. Frankly, I am not certain how many “good” friends I have. They all seem “good” but how many are truly close? Sad to me is that at least a handful of people I am clearly comfortable sharing with freely, I just don’t see enough. We don’t live close. Relocating creates this dilemma in many of our lives, especially as we age. Thank goodness at least for the telephone. Still, although quality is important, quantity is too; the amount of time we share with others counts in our favor.
No matter HOW you choose to make this happen in your life, it is clear that for Aging with Pizzazz, we need to combat loneliness and embrace social ties. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development states the importance clearly:
“Relationships are messy and they’re complicated…
the clearest message that we got from this 75-year study is this:
Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
Good life is built with good relationships.”
So, plan on Aging with Pizzazz – but hold someone’s hand (literally or figuratively) to make it last longer.
See the Harvard / Massachusetts Hospital Grant and Gluck study: http://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/grantandglueckstudy
Picture credit: Pensioners 693227_1280 by ramses51, courtesy of Pixabay.com