You’ve gotten pretty good at going to the gym—you also keep the diet reasonable and quit smoking years ago. And you worry about the diseases that have shown up in your family, particularly if there is heart disease or cancer. Or you feel pretty good if your ancestry is filled with people who have lived to 90 years old or beyond. And then of course there is the proverbial bus that we need to dodge each day. All of the exercise and good genes in the world won’t stop the laws of physics should we violate them. So you wear your seat belts when driving and a helmet when riding a bike to provide as much protection as possible against simple bad luck. But here is a whole new area of information for you to consider when it comes to living healthy and living long. First, we want you to answer these two questions:
- How many friends/relatives do you have who you could ask for help were you to need it? ____
- How happy are you with the amount of emotional support your friends and relatives give to you? Not at all ___ Somewhat ___ Extremely ___
Before you think we have switched topics on you midstream consider these facts. People who have larger and more satisfying social networks live longer, they get Alzheimer’s disease less, they can handle stress more effectively, and they are less prone to such disorders of aging as hypertension and diabetes. Further, if you are a married man or woman you are likely to live longer than similar people who are unmarried. Numerous mechanisms have been suggested as the reason why social ties improve health and longevity. The most credible reasons are linked to the findings that relationships improve our ability to handle stress. Non-supportive social interactions actually lower our immune function and cause an increase in glucocorticoids, the stress hormones produced by the brain. Cardiovascular activity also is increased by negative social engagements. And you thought it was all in your head when you felt terrible after meeting with a hypercritical relative or even with a boss who is much better at identifying faults than strengths.
The truth is that such interactions do bad things to your body—both on the short- and long-term. However, supportive social interactions result in the exact opposite effects on your body. Such interactions leave your body tuned to handle whatever may come your way. These findings may well fall into the category an old professor of mine would call the “blooming obvious.” Of course we know we feel better after we spend time with friends, when we take the time to develop friendships, when our friends and family go out of their way to support us, and when the people who are most important to us allow us into their lives. It’s all nature’s way. But how many of us really take the time to develop friendships and to nurture the friendships we have? Our point to you is that if there ever was a time to start making a concerted effort to develop more friendships and to have fun with those friends, now is the time.
Many of you may be wondering how many friends you need to have. The short answer appears to be the more the better. It certainly is the case that supportive relationships are better for your health than conflicted relationships. So no matter how many friends you have, or how positive you feel about your friends and family, pull out your calendar right now and schedule at least one more time to be with friends or family for each of the next four weeks. And if you are one of those persons who has gotten into a lifestyle where it is work, work, work; where life is spent on the freeway or at your office; where you can’t really remember the last time you took some time to just be with a friend or a loved one, take this as a life-changing opportunity.
If you have less than two friends and if you are not more than Somewhat Happy with your closest relationships, know that you have just identified an area of your life that you can change that will significantly improve your health and your longevity. There’s no need to count on luck, or even on your genes. For you we suggest you schedule an event each week for the next eight weeks. Develop and nurture your relationships and enjoy the benefits of a healthier and longer life.