Most people believe that the secret to living to a very old age is simply down to the food we eat or how much exercise we take, or even whether we drink or smoke or how much stress there is in our lives.
This is because most longevity research (research into lifespan) has focused upon these factors. And they all do play an important role in lifespan. But one vital ingredient is missing from this menu. That ingredient is friends.
It turns out that the positive effect of regular social contact is about as strong as the effect of blood pressure, smoking, alcohol habits, obesity, and eating a healthy diet.
Take, for instance, the following two pieces of research:
In 2010, researchers at Brigham Young University published a meta-analysis of 148 studies involving 308,849 people of an average age of 63.9 years, from four different continents, that dealt with the impact of social relationships on mortality risk. The conclusion was startling: people who enjoyed strong social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of survival over a measured period of 7.5 years compared with people with weak or no social ties.
And a 2010 Australian study that looked at 188 people over the age of 100 found that having a close network of family and friends was a highly significant factor in their lifespan. Contrary to popular belief, genetics actually only accounts for 20-30% of the chances of living to 100! The rest is down to what you eat, how much exercise you take, your attitude, your lifestyle, and now we can add friends, or more precisely, social contact to that equation.
Think of it in this way. Take the health of our planetary ecosystem. It needs biodiversity – that is, a wide variety of different kinds of species. When there’s too little biodiversity, the ‘immune system’ of the planet is compromised and the health of the ecosystem suffers. Similarly, having too little social contact compromises our health whereas a diverse array of social connections improves our health.
We are wired for social contact. It seems that at the heart of all things, being connected sustains life.
Perhaps the roots of connecting go right to the core of reality. We know that at an elementary level, subatomic particles strive to connect. It is the connecting of these particles, facilitated by the four known forces of nature, that produces all matter in the universe.
Quite simply, connecting is what life does. Perhaps there is no other reason for us to be here than to form bonds with one another, for in the process of connecting, life flows through us.
Perhaps we are conduits for life. I am reminded of the words of the philosopher and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, ‘True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: “I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.”’
What aspect of life could be driving the connectedness? Perhaps we can only begin to understand this through the process of connecting itself. It could be love. For in the depths of the bonds we form, love blossoms like a seed sown in fertile ground.
Perhaps, then, to love is the purpose of life!
For the Brigham Young research, see: J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith and J. B. Layton, ‘Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review’, PLoS Medicine, 2010, 7(7), e1000, 316, 1-20
For and article on the 2010 Australian research, click here.