How Our Social Life Affects Our Health and Wellbeing
If you look at some of the longest-living people in the world, you quickly discover something unusual: they all live in tightly-knit communities, surrounded by others who love them.
Take the inhabitants of Sardinia, for instance, the large island just off the west coast of Italy. In the past, the people of the island lived together in close communities and relied on each other for all sorts of things, from food to companionship. What’s interesting about them, though, is that they also live far longer than most people over on the mainland – well, until they began eating processed junk food.
It’s a similar story for the Seventh Day Adventists in California. Now officially the world’s longest-living population, these religious folks have lives based entirely around community activities. They do everything together and regularly meet up. The oldest people in the community are always included, and female life expectancy is now pushing an incredible 91 years.
Scientists are now coming around to the idea that how long we live might have more than a little to do with our social environment. Loneliness kills, it seems, and, conversely, people thrive when they have others around them.
- Ways to Avoid and Combat Loneliness
- 10 Ways Your Mental Health Benefits from Spending Time with Others
The Survival Theory
Why this happens remains a bit of a mystery, but there are theories now emerging which purport to explain the phenomenon. One of those theories is called the survival theory and relies on our evolutionary history as a species.
In the past, if you were expelled from the tribal group, it almost always meant certain death. People aren’t very good at surviving by themselves in the wilderness–they need a community of people around them to provide support. Our bodies know that being alone is dangerous, so evolution gave us the ability to adapt to help improve our chances in the short term. When we’re alone, our blood pressure rises, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, preparing us for fight or flight situations.
Although this might help a thirty-year-old warrior with a spear survive in the rainforest, it does little for the seventy-year-old sitting in their apartment where there are no real threats. What it does do is increase their risk of having some kind of cardiovascular problem, like a stroke or heart disease.
As CareBuilders points out, living in communities has many benefits for older people. It seems to make them feel safer on a biological level, preventing them from developing many of the risk factors associated with being alone. And this might explain why some of the world’s longest-living populations live as long as they do.The act of kindness and caring for others actively reduces stress and anxiety, helping to control a wide range of risk factors for disease. Kindness is good for your mind, your body, and your soul.Click To Tweet
The Caring Theory
The survival theory isn’t the only hypothesis that scientists have proposed to explain why having a good social life helps you live longer. Another theory, broadly called the caring theory, suggests that the act of caring for other people actively reduces the stress that people experience, helping to control a range of risk factors for disease. Lower levels of stress and anxiety are linked to better sleep, which could have an impact on the lifestyle choices that people make, as well as a direct effect on brain health. It could also help explain why people who live in communities have better insulin sensitivity, gut health, and immune systems – they’re just more relaxed.
Quality, Not Quantity is What Counts
None of this implies proximity to others alone is what matters. In fact, according to Harvard Health Magazine, the determining factor is the quality of the relationships people have, not the quantity. As a result, you don’t have to go out and make a bunch of superficial friends: just make sure that there are a handful of people in your life on whom you can always rely.
Studies from the US to Sweden of elderly adults show that it’s the closeness of relationships which really makes a difference.
Healthy Relationships are Key
But how do you make sure that your relationships stay healthy? One of the best ways to do so is to conduct large chunks of your relationship with your spouse in the presence of others in the community. Having people around forces both of you to temper your behavior and get into the habit of treating each other with respect. Many of the most successful relationships in long-living communities are conducted in public and, importantly, are a community, not an individual, effort.
Those who live the longest tend to prioritize their relationships with others above things like the pursuit of money. Communities are what matter most, rather than personal gain. Stepping outside of yourself not only helps you to have a more fulfilling life but also to get more life in general. When personal concerns become less important, life becomes less stressful and has more purpose.
The Longest-Living Communities Eat Together
This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the fact that all of the healthiest groups on Earth tend to eat together in communities. What’s more, their diets are very particular: almost all naturally-grown and plant-based.
Cooking is becoming something of a lost art in the west, with more and more people relying on others to prepare meals for them. But when industry takes over the role of the home kitchen, a lot of the goodness in natural food is removed. Shelf life becomes more of a priority.
Traditional communities, however, make the process of cooking easier by sharing the load with each other. It’s not uncommon for whole villages to get together in places like Sardinia and Okinawa, each person preparing a dish for the benefit of others. The food, of course, is all homemade and uses mostly whole food ingredients.
Suffice it to say, living in a community is essential for our health and well-being. We’re social creatures, and we need the company of others to grow and develop as people. Life in isolation is not only a missed opportunity, but also artificially shortened.
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