NOTE: The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Shortlister
It’s not for a lack of information. Health and wellness trends and the DOs and DON’Ts of how to live a healthy life are only a click away, yet incidences of chronic disease are on the rise. What are we neglecting that makes being healthy so hard? What if the answer is not simply how many steps we take, or the number of vegetables we eat. What if the question is how connected are we? How are social interactions (or lack thereof) impacting the length and quality of life?
The way people socialize has changed in the 21st century. Face-to-face interactions have decreased while the way we interact with one another has transformed due to the fast-paced technology based world we live in. The result – social isolation and feelings of loneliness are increasing. Yet, individuals have a 50% increase in their likelihood of survival when they have strong social relationships. How can we achieve the quality of health so many of us are seeking? There is one simple way to help protect your health, and that is by enjoying quality and meaningful social connections daily.
What are Blue Zones and What Do They Have To Do With Social Connection?
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, discovered the 5 Blue Zones, which are the regions around the world where people are living significantly longer and healthier lives. Buettner sought to find out why people in these regions are thriving; and along his journey he became the founder of Blue Zones. Through his research he identified 9 evidence-based commonalities within the Blue Zones that explain why these cultures are living the healthiest for the longest. He categorized them as the Power 9:
- Move naturally
- Know your sense of purpose
- Take time each day to downshift
- Stop eating when you’re 80% full
- Make beans the basis of your diet
- Have a glass wine at 5pm with food and friends
- Belong to a community
- Put your loved ones first
- Be a part of the right tribe
Recently, Buettner spoke at the World Economic Forum about Nicoya, Costa Rica (a Blue Zone). He discovered that this is where longevity and happiness converge. In Nicoya, residents have the largest number of people enjoying their day compared to any other place in the world. Why? Because they are enjoying it together!
Buettner uncovered that Nicoya people value social connection; they are getting 7 to 8 hours of face-to-face meaningful conversation each day. Equally important is who they are having these conversations with. It turns out health, happiness, and longevity are contagious. In fact, individuals exposed to supportive interactions have the following benefits:
- Stronger immune system
- Better functioning of their cardiovascular system
- Efficient production of hormones that keep your body functioning properly
What Are World Leaders Saying & Doing About This Loneliness Plague
Dr. Richard Hu MD, the founder and CEO of Vivametrica, supports that if your friends and family are healthy, you are much more likely to be healthy. Increasingly, we see that optimal health and wellness are more than a physical issue. We all thrive with strong social relationships, and science has confirmed that these relationships foster physical and emotional wellbeing. Surround yourself with people passionate about living a full and healthy life, and you will be better for it.
Leaders around the world are following Dr. Hu and Dan Buettner’s path in researching and promoting the importance of social connection and health. The United Kingdom has recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness as for far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. There is good reason to tackle loneliness. Approximately 66% of people who report their health as great also report having a strong sense of community.
Another leader within the health field, Vivek Murthy the Surgeon General of the United States from 2014 to 2017, wrote about loneliness in the Harvard Business Review. During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. Murthy explains that this feeling of loneliness causes stress, and our bodies have not evolved to cope with long-term chronic stress which causes an increase in cortisol (a key stress hormone) and higher levels of inflammation in the body. This means that individuals who are lonely have damaged blood vessels and other tissues, which increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death. We know people are suffering from a lack of meaningful social connection, and there is no time like the present to take action.
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Take Home Message
There is evidence from hundreds of studies that reveal meaningful social relationships benefit the quality and the length of human life. As we continue to learn more about the damage of social isolation, there is a vital need to re-establish an investment in our social lives and communities. We are all guilty of keeping to ourselves during our busy days; now is the time to make change.
I challenge you to better your health and others around you; connect with people, share stories, eat lunch with your colleagues or carpool to work. These are small actions that largely benefit the health of others and yourself. It really can be that simple, but like with many health practices, it can also be easy to neglect. That is why we need to push ourselves to engage in meaningful connection daily. Share with others what you have learned after reading this. Lead by example and connect with people to emphasize the importance of social connectivity has on living a long, healthy and happy life, so maybe one day the Blue Zones are not limited to 5 regions but to 50 or 100!