Why Connection is a Matter of Life and Death

September 17, 2017
Mike Stallard

This week we have two outstanding TED Talks to share with you that demonstrate how both quantitative and qualitative research are coming to the conclusion that human connection improves the quality and length of our lives.

I’d encourage you to watch the entire talks (by clicking on the subtitles). For those who don’t have time, a few highlights follow.

Richard Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, on Happiness

A recent survey of millennials asked them what their most important life goals are. Over 80 percent stated that a major life goal is to get rich and 50 percent said it is to be famous, but a major study demonstrates that other factors lead to a fulfilled life.

Over 75 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked the lives of 724 men. Researchers sent them questionnaires, interviewed them in their homes, reviewed medical records from their doctors, tested their blood, scanned their brains, and spoke with their wives and children. About a decade ago, they invited the participants’ wives to join the study.

The study’s lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder. The primary lesson is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

The research found three primary lessons about relationships.

  1. ‍People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, and to community are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. 
  2. ‍The quality of close relationships matters. It turns out that living in the midst of chronic conflict is really bad for our health. 
  3. ‍Relationships with people who have our backs provides protection for our brains, and people in relationships where they feel they can't count on the other person experience earlier memory decline. 

The bottom line is that the good life, both quality and length of life, is built with good relationships.

Susan Pinker, Developmental Psychologist, on Living Longer

In 2015, Lancet published research showing that men in rich countries are twice as likely to die as women are at any age. An exception is men who live on the island of Sardinia. Genes account for 25 percent of their longevity while 75 percent is attributed to lifestyle, so Dr. Pinker went to Sardinia to investigate. Dr. Pinker observed that the village of Villagrande, at the epicenter of the area she studied, is densely populated. The centenarians there were always surrounded by extended family, friends, neighbors, the priest, the barkeeper, the grocer, etc. People were always there or dropping by. They never lived solitary lives, unlike the rest of the developed world. 

Dr. Pinker pointed to the research of Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University, who looked at every aspect of people’s lifestyles: diet, exercise, marital status, frequency of medical exams, whether they smoked or drank, etc., then waited for seven years to see who survived. Results are shown below:

Julianne Holt-Lunstad research on mortality factors

Connection in the form of social integration and close relationships account for the two top factors that reduce the risk of mortality. Social integration means how much you interact with people as you move through your day, including weak bonds. Rhetorically, Dr. Pinker asks:

“Do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you play bridge or poker, have a book club?”

Along with close supportive relationships, casual daily interactions turn out to be “one of the strongest predictors of how long you'll live,” far greater than diet, exercise and other factors we assume are more important.

Now that we spend, on average, more time online than on any other activity (around 11 hours a day), Dr. Pinker dug deeper to see if online connection is as beneficial as face-to-face connection. The short answer is no. She says:

“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters, and like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future. So simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and it lowers your cortisol levels. So it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain.” 

Dr. Pinker points to the research of Elizabeth Redcay, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland. Dr. Redcay’s research images illustrate that there is greater brain activation from in-person interactions as compared to brain activation from watching videos like those on YouTube.

Dr. Pinker concludes that women may live longer than men because they prioritize face-to-face relationships and develop them over their lifetimes.  She states, “fresh evidence shows that these in-person friendships create a biological force field against disease and decline” and calls for each of us to do what we can to build “in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas [because it] bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer. I call this building your village, and building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death.” 

To consider how to boost connection in your life at home and in your workplace, download our 100 Ways to Connect e-book. Take time to go through it and identify attitudes, language and behaviors that will boost connection in your life and in the lives of the people you interact with each day. Consider sending this link to friends and family members so they will benefit from our free e-book and encourage them to sign up for our complimentary newsletter with more practical tips.

More From Michael Lee Stallard

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Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of Connection Culture Group, speaks, teaches and consults on leadership, organizational culture and employee engagement. He is the author of Connection Culture and Fired Up or Burned Out. Follow him on his blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

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