The #1 Way To Have a Happier, Longer Life

16 minute read
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:


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:

…if you’re surrounded by a tightly connected circle of friends who regularly gather to eat and share gossip, you’ll not only have fun but you’re also likely to live an average of fifteen years longer than a loner. One study of almost three thousand Americans found that people with close friendships are far less likely to die young, and in 2004 a Swedish epidemiologist discovered the lowest rate of dementia in people with extensive social networks. Fifty-year-old men with active friendships are less likely to have heart attacks than more solitary men, while people who have had a stroke are better protected from grave complications by a tight, supportive social network than they are by medication.

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:

Feeling lonely exaggerates the inflammation and reactivity to stress that are linked to heart disease while interfering with our ability to retain facts and solve problems, according to work by the British epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe… John Cacioppo and his colleagues have found that loneliness drives up the cortisol and blood pressure levels that damage the internal organs in both sexes, and at all ages and stages of adult life… Even months after they were released, MRIs of prisoners of war in the former Yugoslavia showed the gravest neurological damage in those prisoners who had been locked in solitary confinement. “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic head injury,” Gawande concludes.

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:

Studies show that we are now connected to a larger and more diverse circle of people, but between 12 and 23 percent of Americans say they have nobody to talk to (in 1985 that figure was 8 percent).

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:

In a study of the effect of Internet use on social relationships in adults aged eighteen to sixty-three, Dutch psychologist Thomas Pollet found that time spent using online social networks resulted in more online contacts but didn’t translate into genuine offline connections or a feeling of closeness. Indeed, not only is online contact experienced as less fun, but without face-to-face contact, social relationships decay and are soon replaced by others… “Emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to the most distant outer layer of your 150 friends,” says Dunbar.

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:

People who spent more than five hours a week of their personal time online had less face-to-face contact with their strong ties. The authors of the study, inventor and social scientist Norman Nie, along with several Stanford colleagues, were clear: “For every personal e-mail message sent or received there is almost a 1 minute drop in the amount of time spent with family. With a mean of 13 personal emails sent and received, that amounts to about 13 minutes less of family time a day, or about 1.5 hours a week.… The more time spent on the internet, the less time spent with friends, family, and colleagues.”

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:

There is evidence that turning to the Internet for social connection may stir up feelings of isolation. One study in the early 2000s showed that New York women with non-invasive breast cancer who used their computers as a research tool reported feeling more socially supported than women who didn’t use the web. However, using their laptops to seek medical information was one thing. But the more time these women spent on the Internet, the lonelier they felt. This finding has surfaced in several studies and has been called the “Internet paradox,” because the web is supposed to connect us, right? Well, that depends on what you need. If it’s information, that’s one thing. If it’s the reassurance of a hug or of sharing a private joke in real time, that’s another.

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:

Elsewhere, most men don’t make it to eighty, but once Sardinian men in this region have lived through their dangerous, risk-taking adolescent and young adult years, they tend to live as long as their wives and sisters— well into their nineties and even beyond. And there was another local mystery. Despite living hardscrabble lives as shepherds, farmers, and laborers in a rugged, inhospitable environment, Sardinians who were born and live in Villagrande and the surrounding villages are outlasting their fellow citizens in Europe and North America by as many as two or three decades…Currently, ten times as many men in Villagrande live past the age of one hundred as men who live elsewhere.

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:

…the Loma Linda area boasts rates of perchlorate in its drinking water that are eighty-three times higher than the limits recommended by California’s Department of Health. It also has the worst ozone pollution in the nation, according to the American Lung Association. Yet Loma Linda’s residents live an average of six years longer than other Americans, in large part due to the social bonds among the Seventh-day Adventists who live there.

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:

Similar to Berkman and Syme’s first study, those who experienced various kinds of social contact increased their odds of survival— not just by a little, but by 91 percent, nearly doubling their odds of dodging the ultimate bullet for a long while. It wasn’t simply a question of living alone, or being married or single. What was important was being a part of a community in more ways than one— not just by being happily married, not only by belonging to clubs and groups, but by being involved in several of these activities and relationships at the same time…

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:

To weather the inevitable indignities of advancing age, geographic proximity to close friends and confidantes is what really matters, according to research by Teresa Seeman and Lisa Berkman. Indeed, what the data tell us is that the elderly, and especially widowed people, live longer in places such as Villagrande or Boca Raton— where there are lots of residents of the same age with the same concerns— than they would if they lived among Brooklynites pushing baby strollers and riding fixed-gear bikes.

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:

Having linked attendance at religious services to greater happiness and lower rates of cardiovascular disease and death, some epidemiologists have suggested that going to church is more effective than Lipitor, adding an average of two to three years to a person’s life.

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:

Smaller groups that communicated face-to-face were more cohesive. There was more trust within the group, which made it easier for people to ask questions and seek help when they needed it. As a result, those groups were more productive, especially when a problem was complex. The rich signaling within the team meant that actual conversations propelled the work forward.

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:

One 2010 study led by Harvard’s Isaac Kohane shows that the farther scientists are from each other geographically, the less influential their work is on their discipline, and on society. Indeed, the medical studies cited most often by scientists are more likely to be the work of researchers who work together in the very same building, within two hundred meters of each other.

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:

Coordinated breaks at all ten of the bank’s call centers (involving twenty-five thousand employees) improved the weak teams’ performance by more than 20 percent, increased performance overall by 8 percent, and boosted employee satisfaction by more than 10 percent, Sandy Pentland reports. Based on these boosts in performance, the bank is predicting $ 15 million in increased profit. “We have the data to show that small changes can have very large effects,” Waber told me. “The things that matter are these social interactions.”

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:

Other experiments showed that when people connect— and especially when they touch each other— oxytocin is released, which damps down their stress and enables them to trust each other… A simple handshake, a pat, a fist-bump, a friendly nudge, or a high five does the trick. The effect isn’t limited to one-on-one interactions, either. All evidence points to social contact lowering stress among colleagues and making a team more cohesive.

(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:

    The probability that a person not biologically related to you will offer you a kidney is very small— about three in a thousand. The chances of two people doing so are infinitesimal. Then there is John, who received four serious offers. By virtue of his strong relationships, groomed over decades, John beat the odds— and the disease that had killed his father.

    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:

    “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”

    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.

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