According to Psychologist, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, “smoking, drinking, exercise and even heart problems are not predictors of a person’s longevity, but a person’s close relationships and social integration are”. While researching the impact that our human connections have on our physical health, she found that “those with intimacy in their lives and those with support systems and frequent face-to-face interactions were not only physically and emotionally healthier, but they also lived longer”.
The residents of Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan and Icaria in Greece are good examples. These islands comprise some of the world’s “Blue Zones” – a handful of geographic regions where more people live to the age of 100 than anywhere else. When population studies were done in these regions, it was found that people shared many common behavioural characteristics, but specifically, they all thrived on frequent social interactions. In contrast, in our society, many individuals over the age of 65 claim that although they get texts and phone calls from their loved ones, they still feel unwanted and unvalued. Many, under the age of 25, say that, in spite of social media exposure, they still feel disconnected from the people around them. In our society, it almost seems as though loneliness has become the new norm, where the ease of connecting to others via our digital devices has replaced the effort of traditional face-to-face contact.
For centuries, in fact, our survival has depended on social interaction. It has been known to foster our immunity and our resilience. According to Neuroscientist, John Cacioppo, “how accepted and supported we feel affects the biological pathways that skew the genetic expression of a disease, while feeling isolated leaves a loneliness imprint on every cell”. Cacioppo went as far as studying women with breast cancer who had predominant face-to-face social networks and found that they were four times as likely to survive their illness as women with lesser social connections. He also found that men, over the age of 50, with active friendships were less likely to have heart attacks than men with more solitary lives.
Today, more than ever, we recognize that eating processed foods, lacking exercise and being overweight can shorten our lifespan and so, we are slowly taking appropriate steps towards positive lifestyle changes. But yet, the simplest life improvement of all, such as spending more time with others, is being neglected. Although our digital devices are proving to be impeccable at providing us with information, they are actually harming our need for deepening human connections and for feeling a sense of belonging. If we could all ditch our phones, move to a Greek island and grow our own food, it would be ideal, but this is not realistic for most of us. Maybe, if we try to work with what we have, right where we are, while eating well, staying active and making sure that our digital devices enhance, not replace, face-to-face interaction, who knows, we may just be a step closer to living longer and healthier lives.