What you can do to live longer and be happier, according to 85 years of data

According to the longest and most thorough longitudinal study of human development, by examining 85 years of data to this point, scientists have concluded the real X-factor to avoid a myriad of negative health outcomes, as well as the main driver of happiness.

Is it a diet/obesity risk? No.

Does he exercise enough? No.

Does it smoke? No.

Is it wealth/class/professional success? No.

Is it a race? No.

Is it the sex? No.

These are all very important factors for long-term health. But that’s not the most important factor, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Simply put, the most important thing you can do to live longer and be happier? Make a friend.

RELATED: How To Make Friends As An Adult, According To 22 Experts

The steady decline of social ties

For a while now I’ve been on a soapbox about how male mortality is six years shorter than female due to the health risks associated with loneliness and isolation (see Jed Diamond, who is the expert on this subject, speaks here). Men have massively higher rates of suicide, alcohol and drug-related deaths, and more.

Last night I was talking to my old friend Andrea Miller, the founder and CEO of YourTango (yes, the website you’re reading right now). She calls her site a “purpose-driven publisher focused on love, relationships, emotional well-being, and empowerment.” Right below this tagline, readers are supported in their search for meaning and connection.

Then this morning I was scrolling through my most recent podcast episodes as I headed for my morning run. I hit a puzzle. Five Thirty Eight, the political data analysis team founded by Nate Silver, had an episode with a Zen priest about loneliness. I rarely listen to anything political because I find our extremist world too upsetting. But I had to check this.

In 51 minutes, Robert Waldinger has woven together many threads of my current thinking. Waldinger is the Zen priest, Harvard psychiatrist, and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development currently housed at MGH.

Waldinger talks about the steady decline in social connections beginning in 1950. In 2021, more than a third of Americans report experiencing a “streak of loneliness.”

RELATED: 19 New Things To Try When You’d Rather Stay In Bed Than Make New Friends

How the “real” connection is defined

Waldinger defines actual connection, and isolation, by the number of “secure attachments” a person has. How many friends could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared? The percentage of people reporting none of these people (including many married people) has increased from 3% in 1990 to 12% in 2021. The percentage with 10 or more close friends has increased from 33% in 1990 to 13% in 2021.

Waldinger explains the statistical methodology used to correlate isolation with illnesses as varied as heart disease and type 1 diabetes. They also subject study participants to tests that measure their ability to withstand stressful situations and return to normal levels of blood pressure, heart rate and heart rate variability. It turns out that stress resilience is directly correlated with a social network (lonely people react more strongly to stress and take much longer to calm down).

RELATED: 13 Things The Most Popular People Do When They Want To Make New Friends

The loneliness factor

The “loneliness factor,” he explains, has evolutionary pathways. Natural selection chooses ancestors who lived in groups. Whenever these socially connected ancestors found themselves alone, they would go into overstimulated mode seeking danger and trying to get back to their tribe. It was hardwired into them. And is still rooted in us.

This hyper-stimulation of the brain and body when we are chronically alone is what not only causes poor mental health outcomes (suicide) or death from addiction (OD or simply destruction of the body over time), but just about every other major disease. category ranging from cancer to heart disease. Many other important risk factors are strongly correlated with these diseases.

But chronic isolation, when looked at alongside all the other risk factors, Waldinger says is the most important when looking at those 85 years of data.

RELATED: 7 Subtle Signs You’re Suffering From Chronic Loneliness

Vulnerability is the answer

I recently wrote about how, as men, we too often find ourselves dominated by our reptilian brains, resulting in negative and self-destructive behaviors. And how for us as men, vulnerability is the answer.

Waldinger speaks of exactly the same thing. When we’re alone, we get hyper-excited and spend all of our time in the primitive reptilian brain which, it turns out, not only makes us do all kinds of stupid things but also, science proves, will kill us. The answer is to be vulnerable, to connect. In the recovery world, we say that our illness “wants us alone and dead.” I guess that’s true for all of us. Men and women, dependent or not.

Social media, Waldinger points out, has been an accelerator of isolation. Even in academic circles, opinion leaders bully and drag each other down. We all have FOMO and are sensitive to those tiny Zuckerman dopamine hits and everyone else has a mastermind. Waldinger confesses that when he and his wife get up in the morning and drink their coffee, they’re both glued to their phones like the rest of the country.

RELATED: Why You Should Be Thankful For All Your Friendships

How to find your calm center – and get out of your own head

Recently, I explored the breath with an old friend from Iona Gym who has dedicated her life to teaching the practice. I found it very powerful. Equally powerful was his suggestion to go through long periods of technological detox.

Tried to go from 5am to 3pm on weekends by turning everything off (phone, computer, internet, etc.). The moment I did it the first time, I felt tremendous relief. My nervous system immediately calmed down. I was safe in a way that I hadn’t been in a long time.

Waldinger talks about getting out of our heads and into our hearts. Iona speaks of the body as a bridge to the soul. I do crazy things like swim in Boston Harbor when it’s 40 degrees because it gets me out of my head and into my body. Disable this overstimulated flight or fight response.

Waldinger’s solutions are quite simple. He is in favor of some sort of national service for young people that would allow them to connect with a diverse group of peers. It encourages us to think of someone we miss every day and call or text that person.

He favors architecture and workplaces that promote relaxed interaction with other humans. And he asks us to consider our “social” fitness as even more important than our athletic fitness. It’s a muscle that needs to be worked on every day.

And if you’re alone, never feel like you’re the only one. The whole country is alone. We just need to start talking about it a lot more.

RELATED: How to Avoid Forced Friendships and Let Things Happen Naturally

Tom Matlack has been suicidal, drunk, anorexic… and yet, at 58, he’s never been happier. He adores his wife and three children. Its mission is to help people. He writes daily on Substack.

Get the best YourTango tips, celebrity news and giveaways delivered to your inbox daily. And it’s free.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Leave a Comment