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By Eric Barker
April 5, 2016
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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Who wants to live a happy, healthy, long life? Yeah, everybody. Turns out an incredible amount of scientific evidence points to one simple answer:

Relationships.

But why? And what do we really need to do on a regular basis to see the benefits?

Turns out we’re all doing a lot of things wrong.

Let’s learn four big insights from the research and start living that great life, shall we?

1) Relationships = Health

If there’s a viral pandemic going on, by all means, lock the doors and be a hermit. But short of that, being surrounded by people who care about you is a fantastic way to stay healthy. How healthy?

Add 15 years to your life. Increase your odds of beating cancer, staving off dementia, recovering from heart attacks and a lot more.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Going to the gym is great. But strong relationships turn out to be three times as great:

Poker nights are a good idea. Solitaire will kill you.

As Susan Pinker writes, “…neglecting to keep in close contact with people who are important to you is at least as dangerous to your health as a pack-a-day cigarette habit, hypertension, or obesity.”

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Problem is, a shocking number of us are lonelier than ever. As many as 23% of Americans say they have no one to talk to.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Am I the only one wondering why your doctor never asks, “How much time do you spend with friends?”

(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)

But you have plenty of friends on Facebook, right? You text or IM or email with people all the time…

I have one question for you: Can I be the beneficiary on your life insurance policy? Because I may be getting a big check a lot sooner than you’d like…

Eric Barker: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

2) Online Relationships Don’t Count

Research shows you can have a zillion Facebook friends and still feel lonely. Emotional closeness to someone declines by 15% for every year you don’t see them face to face.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

The more time you spend online, the less time you spend with friends. The research shows for every email message you send or receive you can subtract a minute spent with loved ones.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

In fact, looking to the net for social connections increases your feelings of isolation.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

When you use online time to arrange face-to-face meetings, it increases happiness. When you use it as a substitute it increases unhappiness.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happier, click here.)

Okay, relationships are vital and face-to-face is what really counts. But what kind of relationships do you want? For the answer, we need to take a quick trip to Sardinia…

 

3) You Need A Community

Weak ties” help you find jobs. But they don’t help you through the tough times. To be happy and live longer you want strong bonds to a community of like-minded people who understand and care about you.

What does that have to do with Sardinia? Thank you for asking.

Men die younger than women. We just accept that as a fact of life. But it’s not true in Sardinia. Sardinia has ten times as many male centenarians as any place else on the globe.

Sardinia is a place with insanely strong social bonds. In fact, Susan Pinker had difficulty conducting interviews with the centenarians because there were always friends and family around when she was trying to talk to them.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

No, it’s not just genetics. Studies show genetics only accounts for 25% of longevity.

And it’s not the clean living. Loma Linda, California, is a disaster in terms of fresh air and water but its residents live 6 years longer than average. Guess why…

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

In a gargantuan study of 309,000 subjects, people who were actively involved in a community, playing a number of social roles, doubled their chances of survival over the 7 years of research.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Ever wonder why so many older Americans move to Florida? It’s actually quite smart. When you live near others who are similar to you and share the same issues you do, research shows you live longer.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Religious people live longer. But it’s not the religion that does it, it’s increased social time that comes from the community.

And because of that, religion ends up being more powerful than Lipitor.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Get to know your neighbors. It can save your life.

(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

So all those personal relationships matter a lot. But what about work? Turns out how you deal with the people around you can make you happier, healthier, and more productive…

Eric Barker: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

4) Relationships At Work Matter Too

Face-to-face encounters promote more trust than email, phone or IM. And that increases your productivity.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Want to do good work that makes a difference? A Harvard study showed the farther collaborating scientists were from each other the less influential their work was.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Want to be happier and more productive? Take your breaks at the same time as your friends at work do. This boosted performance, increased smiling and made the company that participated in the study an extra $15 million.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

And make sure to greet your friends at work with a handshake, hug or fist-bump. Those little touches cause us to release oxytocin, which reduces stress and increases trust.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s secrets on how to get people to like you, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round up the tips and learn just how much spending more time on strong relationships can improve your life…

Eric Barker: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

Sum Up

Here’s how to live a happy, healthy, long life:

  • Relationships = health: Three times as powerful as exercise.
  • Online relationships don’t count: Don’t substitute Facebook for face-to-face. Use tech to arrange relationships, not replace them.
  • Be part of a community: Be a Sardinian and be engaged with groups of like-minded people who care.
  • Work relationships matter: Take breaks with your friends and give’em a hug.

In her book, Susan Pinker tells the story of her friend John McColgan who needed a kidney transplant. And he needed it fast.

With no family members who could offer him a kidney, he was added to the list of people waiting for a donor. And he was number 86,219 on that list… Not good. And the average person’s chance of getting a non-family member to agree to donate a kidney is 3 in 1000.

But John had spent his life developing and nurturing strong friendships. So when he asked if anyone would donate a kidney,four people agreed.

Those are lottery winner statistics. But it wasn’t chance. Spending time building relationships had been a choice. And it literally saved his life.

From The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier:

Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Sorry, Jean-Paul. You were wrong. John Donne was a lot closer when he wrote, “No man is an island.”

The Grant Study followed a group of men from college until the end of life. The results offer deep insight into what makes a good – or bad – life.

They realized there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80:

The research concluded that “the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.”

The lead researcher was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?”

He replied, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Now stop staring at this screen and go hug a friend.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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