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The one thing that makes for a happier, longer life

Back in 1938, a group of researchers began a longitudinal study to answer the question,

“What makes a good life?” 

Was it being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, having a good education and finding a well-paid job? Was it enjoying high social status and all the freedoms wealth can bestow?

Or was it something else?

They discovered the answer.

The study is still ongoing with a number of the original cohort still participating in the biannual survey and now joined by their offspring and their wives.

In my book Thriving Mind, I explore the concept of happiness: what it is, why we think we have to pursue it what enables us to be happier.

The answer is discussed by Robert Waldinger the current and 4th Director of the Harvard Adult Development study in his Ted talk where he explains it’s the quality of our closest relationships that have the biggest impact on our health and happiness.

“How happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health…the best predictor at age 50 of your physical health at age 80 isn’t your cholesterol level, but how satisfied you are in your relationships with your family, friends and community.”

 

Being happy is one thing, but what about how long you’re going to live for?

Is there one thing that might determine how likely it will be for you to live well in your hundreds, happy and well (and with your brain intact)?

Again, research suggests there is.

If you’ve heard of the Blue Zones you will know these are the five diverse areas around the world where many of the inhabitants are centenarians. There is the Island of Okinawa in Japan, Ikaria in Greece, Loma Linda in the US, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and Oligastra in Sardinia.

These five zones have been found to share certain common characteristics.

  • The inhabitants eat a diet based on fresh, locally sourced produce that is predominantly plant based.
  • They exercise a lot. Not by going to the gym, but by remaining active and walking every day.
  • They drink moderate amounts of alcohol.
  • They get plenty of good quality sleep.
  • Faith is important to many.
  • They have a strong social network of extended family members and community meaning they are cared for by those who know them, love them and value them.

Susan Pinker, organisational psychologist and author of “The Village Effect. How face-to-face contact can make us healthier and happier” in her Ted talk explains how her curiosity to understand why, as a whole, women live 6-8 years longer than men took her to Sardinia, one of the Blue Zones.

Sardinia is only about 350kms from the mainland of Italy and yet the island has six times as many centenarians as Italy and is the only place in the world where the men live as long as the women.

Why?

Beyond all the other lifestyle factors you might expect AND having close personal relationships, there is another social factor at play. The top place goes to… your level of social integration.

Your social what?

 

Your social integration is about how much you interact with others around you.

  • Like talking to the person operating the checkout in the supermarket. (I knew there was a reason I dislike those self-checkout stalls so much)
  • Or saying asking how the barista, who makes your coffee every day in your favourite café is going.
  • Or sharing a cheery good morning to a fellow dog-walker you pass in the street.
  • Or saying thank you to the driver who stops to let you cross the road.
  • Or introducing yourself to the person who just sat down next to you on the plane, train or coach (assuming no restrictions of course!) who is going to be your companion for the next 5 hours on your shared journey.

Of course, this does depend on your personality and culture.

When I suggested to one of my brothers how chatting to strangers or people we bump into regularly during the course of our day could make us feel good about ourselves, he was horrified.

“Why on earth would I do that?” he asked. “People would think I was peculiar!!”

Yes, he’s British and while born British myself, having now lived in Australia for many years I will pretty much happily chat with anyone, or at the very least, smile in acknowledgement of their presence.

When I lived in the UK, I was a regular commuter on the London Underground, where the unspoken rule was to sit in stony silence for the entire journey. No one made eye contact or spoke to anyone else, preferring to sit either eyes closed, earphones in place, listening to music, or reading their newspaper (and folding the pages over to prevent annoying neighbours from trying to read it too). 

 

Why this is important, is not just about living longer.

Loneliness has been described as a public health hazard and is a growing problem.

Our wonderful technology allows us to connect with others in an instant and yet can leave us with a growing sense of disconnect.

Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in your social media feed on your work commute, you become oblivious to the people and what’s happening around you?

A few years ago, I on a bus in northern Japan on route to the airport. We travelled through areas of forest, passing by rivers and countryside dotted with villages. It was an exquisite landscape that the two young siblings sitting in the row on the other side of the bus from me failed to notice at all because they were totally focused on their online games on their phones for the entire journey. 

Failing to connect with others regularly, face-to-face, damages our health, our mental wellbeing, our cognition and shortens lives. We are social beings and feeling isolated whether through circumstance, working from home, or living in prolonged periods of lockdown is doing us harm. While zoom calls and team meetings can help, (unless you’ve applied a cat filter) they are not quite as good as being in the room together.

While debate rages on whether we will ever return to the previous way of working in an office or not post Covid, the real urgency lies in ensuring we continue to enjoy a sense of connection and have opportunities for social integration. 

Whether you are sharing a smile, a joke or a story this is what elevates levels of those feel-good neurochemicals essential to your mental wellbeing. We get an extra surge of dopamine that makes us feel great and oxytocin that helps us feel connected to the person we are with, building trust and mutual respect.

For employers, executives, team leaders and entrepreneurs, it’s essential our health and wellbeing continue to take centre stage. This will include nurturing a psychologically safe working environment that promotes positive meaningful connection, mental wellbeing and happiness.

How does social integration feature in your life?
Do you have a couple of significant close relationships you know you can always count on? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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