If you thought healthy living meant endless gym sessions and surviving on kale and spirulina, think again. Research has shown that the key to living a long and happy life is as much about spending time with friends and family as it is about diet and exercise. “There are many biological links between our social lives and health,” says health writer Marta Zaraska. “And the reason for that is we evolved this way because we’re a social species. Just like chimpanzees, our cousins, we function best when surrounded by others.”
Marta believes that when it comes to health, we have become too reliant on quick fixes. “We are a society that likes easy solutions, and pills are perfect for that. You swallow something and suddenly, miraculously, you live longer or you’re healthier. But unfortunately that’s an illusion – there are no miracle pills,” she says.
But by focusing on our social lives, we may not only live longer but be happier too. “The long-term benefits of developing your health through friendship, optimism and kindness are so much more rewarding because it also makes you happier,” says Marta.
“It’s more pleasant than finding the best supplements or miracle diets.”
Here, Marta shares her tips for living a long and happy life.
Phone a friend
These days, we often use text messages or social media to connect with others. But picking up the phone more often could benefit our health. This is because when we hear the voice of a loved one, the body releases oxytocin – often known as the love hormone – in greater quantities than when we text or use social media. So it’s much more important to hear another person’s voice for our health.
Take a warm shower
Loneliness isn’t just unpleasant; it increases our risk of illness too. But if socialising with others is difficult, especially when facing local lockdowns, there are things you can do to feel more connected. Research shows that holding something warm or taking a warm shower can activate part of the brain called the insula, which links feeling socially connected to our temperature perception. This evolved because we used to huddle to keep warm, so our brain associates warmth with being close to others.
Be a good neighbour
Kindness has an amazing impact on wellbeing. Being kind can lower blood pressure. There are lots of ways to be kind to others. Why not bake some biscuits for your neighbour or offer to do online shopping for someone who has trouble accessing the internet?
Hug loved ones
Having a diverse range of bacteria in the gut is known to boost health, from digesting food and fighting off illnesses to even preventing depression. Fermented foods such as live yoghurt are known to improve the diversity of gut bacteria, but did you know contact with others can be just as beneficial? This is because humans exchange microbes while hugging. So hug those closest to you.
Join a virtual choir
Research shows doing things with others boosts wellbeing more than doing the same activities alone. Singing in a choir or dancing in a group fosters feelings of connection, and produces more endorphins than singing or dancing by ourselves. Endorphins are great for our health as they are natural painkillers. So why not try joining a virtual choir or doing a dance or exercise class online?
Spend time with loved ones
Spending time with loved ones doesn’t just make us happier, it can help us live longer too. People who are lonely are up to three times more likely to die prematurely. They have shorter telomeres, the protective caps at the end of chromosomes which are involved in ageing. What’s more, they have different expressions of genes which are involved in inflammation and cancer progression. So instead of spending time researching the best superfoods, why not share a meal and chat with family instead?
When researchers studied French centenarian Jean Calment, they discovered a surprising secret to her long life – as well as having good genes, she tended not to worry. Studies show optimism can prolong life by as much as 10 years, while avoiding dwelling on past mistakes boosts the immune system in the elderly. Perhaps this was the secret to her living to 122.
Be a volunteer
Eating a Mediterranean diet famously lowers mortality risk by 22 percent. But did you know that volunteering can have the same effect? Don’t try to calculate whether five portions of broccoli a week is worth the same as two hours of volunteering. It’s the general spirit that counts – being social and mindful boosts health at least as much as traditional healthy lifestyle factors.
Often when we think about Japan, the world’s longest living nation, we fixate on the diet. But in Japan there’s a lot of focus on purpose in life as the driver of health, to the point that the Japanese minister for health recognises the idea of having purpose in life as a health behaviour. Research shows that people live longer if they have something to strive for, whether it’s career success, providing for children, doing charity work, or something else that is important to them.
Focus on love
If you want to live longer, try to find a romantic partner or work on your current relationship, as being happily married can lower your mortality risk by 49 percent. There are many biological links between our social lives and health. Oxytocin makes you feel all warm and fuzzy when you’re with your loved ones, but it also reduces pain and has anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps bone growth which can potentially prevent osteoporosis.