The other day I watched a TED talk called “The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life”. In this talk, Susan Pinker explores why a remote village in Italy has more than SIX TIMES the number of centenarians (people who live to the age of 100) than anywhere else in the world.
What did she find? The number 1 and 2 most important factors for HOW LONG YOU WILL LIVE are not what you think….
Her results, in order from LEAST important, to MOST important, were as follows…
“Clean air, which is great, doesn’t predict how long you will live.
Whether you have your hypertension treated is good…but still not a strong predictor.
Whether you’re lean or overweight – you can stop feeling guilty about this – because it’s only in third place.
How much exercise you get is next – still only a moderate predictor.
Whether you’ve had a cardiac event…getting higher now.
Whether you’ve had a flu vaccine.
Then whether you were drinking and quit,
or whether you’re a moderate drinker,
Whether you don’t smoke, or if you did, whether you quit,
and FINALLY getting towards the top predictors are two features of your social life…
First, your close relationships. These are the people that you can call on for a loan if you need money suddenly. Who will call the doctor if you’re not feeling well. Who will take you to the hospital, or who will sit with you if you’re having an existential crisis, if you’re in despair.
Those people, that little clutch of people, are a strong predictor (if you have them) of how long you’ll live.
And then something that surprised me, something that’s called social integration. This means how much you interact with people as you move through your day.
How many people do you talk to? And these mean both your weak and your strong bonds, so not just the people you’re really close to, who mean a lot to you, but, do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you play bridge or poker, have a book club?
Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long you’ll live.”
The secret to a long and happy life? Not drinking or smoking or diet and exercise, no. While these are factors that do contribute, the two most important factors to how long you will live are how many close relationships you have, and the number of face to face interactions you have with people on a daily basis.
Damn! Turns out that having some beers with friends does us more good than harm! Shamelessly drink your beer away, knowing that the real importance is that you are spending time with close friends and building bonds.
However, while this one study is great, I’m always a fan of the scientific method. I want to see if we can replicate these results.
Does anyone else have the same findings? Have any other long term studies been done to show that social relationships have the biggest impact on how long you will live?
Turns out, YES. They have.
In another TED Talk called “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”, we see similar results.
For 75 years Robert Waldinger and his team followed the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, home lives, health, and more, without them knowing how their lives would eventually turn out.
What did they find?
“We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.
The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.
The second big lesson we learned is that the quality of your close relationships that matters. Living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.
We gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, and it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
The third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.
It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective. The people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. The people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline.
Those good relationships? They don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
After watching this talk I remembered a different TED talk that I watched a long time ago. A talk about the surprising reasons why people become addicted to drugs and alcohol.
In Johann Hari’s talk “Everything you know about addiction is wrong” he examines why addicts turn to drugs and can’t break the hook. The interesting finding was that, chemical dependency on drugs was not a factor in addiction. The number of close relationships that person could rely on in times of crisis was.
Turns out, the number of close relationships you have in life is a large predictor of your potential for addiction. All of the addicts in his studies had LESS THAN three people who they could count on in a time of need. The less number of people they could rely on, the more severe problems they had. The MORE people they could rely on, the easier it was for them to kick the habit.
Loneliness is LITERALLY TOXIC. It slowly kills us. Makes us turn to drugs instead of friends and family. When we don’t have people in our lives who we can rely on, we turn to drugs instead. LONELINESS is the primary cause of drug addiction. Social connections are the cure.
Social relationships are the most important factor to a long, happy, and healthy life. They protect our minds and bodies, and prevent us from succumbing to the addictive habits we might develop throughout our life.
Spend more time with loved ones face to face. Trade screen time for face to face conversation time. Join clubs and participate in group activities. Expose yourself to meeting new people. Say hello to everyone that you pass by on the street, from the person who makes you coffee to your cab driver.
The more we build social relationships into our daily lives, the better our lives will be. We are social creatures by nature, living in the loneliest time in human history.
In the end, Johann Hari summarizes it best…
“The number of close friends the average American believes they can call on in a crisis has been declining steadily since the 1950s.The amount of floor space an individual has in their home has been steadily increasing.
I think that’s like a metaphor for the choice we’ve made as a culture. We’ve traded floorspace for friends, we’ve traded stuff for virtual connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies there has ever been…We’ve created a society where, for a lot of us, life looks a whole lot more like an isolated cage instead of a Rat Park.”
Go out and meet some people. Share a beer with friends. It’s the healthiest thing you can do 😃
Also published on Medium.