It's time to put down your phone, and go out to meet a friend for coffee; it just may help you live longer. There is a growing amount of evidence confirming that the trappings of wealth, fame and achievement do not ensure a lifetime of happiness. One study in particular recently caught my attention in a TedTalk presented by developmental psychologist Susan Pinker. Pinker took an in-depth look at the life-long habits of centenarians in Sardinia, an Italian island that boasts six times as many centenarians as the mainland, and ten times as many as North America. Ultimately, Pinker's work affirmed that in-person social interactions were the key to the Sardinian's longevity. Face-to-face communication happens to be not only essential for human happiness but also could be the missing link to some of the most powerful, long-term health benefits.
"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," says Pinker. "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. It lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain. It's like a naturally produced morphine...This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits, yet now almost a quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to."
Pinker warns that, social isolation is "the public health risk of our time." Yet, we need a circle to lean on, and Facebook is definitely not the same as face-to-face. You may be active on social media sites and establishing authentic connections -- but the challenge is to bring these connections off the screen and in to "real life."
Building bonds with others takes time and effort. And as we get older, forming new relationships can feel like hard work. However, do not discount the everyday seemingly small exchanges with others, such as brief social interactions at work, when you go for a walk or even at the grocery store. All of these exchanges can contribute to your health and happiness, but of course, it is the profound ties of friendship that have the most enduring benefits.
The added bonus? As you work to expand your social interactions, you will, in turn, be helping others. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions to help keep you active socially, and "pinging" the neurotransmitters that contribute to a long and happy life.
1. Busy is not enough.
Gauge the authenticity of your current social interactions. You can lead a "busy" life and yet experience feelings of loneliness.
2. Put aside judgment.
Keep an open mind. If you find yourself often judging situations and people, you are closing the door to potential social expansion.
3. Say "yes" more often.
Do your best to get out to social events or pursue the things that interest you. Commit to saying yes to the activities that most invigorate you. Challenge yourself to try something new.
4. Create a social bucket list.
Consider this your "I've been meaning to do" list. For example, have you always wanted to take up ballroom dancing or join a cycling club? Or maybe you have been thinking about reaching out to an old friend whom you have lost touch with over the years. Live larger and strive to live life with no regrets.
5. Be mindful.
The benefits of living mindfully, with more awareness, are boundless. Mindfulness enables you to more easily identify your strengths and weaknesses, get a better handle on stress, and become more sensitive to the needs and emotions of others.
6. Step up.
Armed with the knowledge that healthy social integration is what the world needs now -- carry the torch. Do you know someone who could benefit from more social interaction? Reach out and try to bring people together. Start a walking group, a monthly movie night or other recurring social event.
7. Be neighborly.
Little things can have an immense impact. Help someone with the groceries; open the door for others; visit an elderly neighbor; give someone a compliment; smile more often; make eye contact a habit. Not only will you be making someone else's day, you will feel great about your efforts as well.
Pinkerton urges us in no uncertain terms that "building your village -- building it and sustaining it -- is a matter of life and death." So call that friend, and get out for a coffee!