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When Dan Buettner, National Geographic explorer and NY Times bestselling author, presented at last month’s Medcan and Globe Personal Performance Summit, he told the captivated audience that the world’s healthiest and happiest people prioritized friendship.
He focused on Okinawa, a string of subtropical islands east of Taiwan that boasts more centenarians per head than anywhere else in the world. Buettner attributes this longevity to so-called ‘Blue Zone’ habits: eating a mostly plant-based diet (often sourced from their garden); having a strong purpose (readily say the reason you get up in the morning); eating until they are 80% full (putting less stress on their digestive system); and moving naturally (more walking and less driving). And at the end of every day, Okinawans gather in a friend’s living room and spend a few hours socializing, often with a glass of awamori, a rice-distilled drink, in hand.
This is the local tradition of a moai, a group of five to eight people who meet regularly. In Okinawa, moais are formed in childhood and, for this population, continue well into their 90s. According to Buettner this is a great example of how to nurture a sense of belonging with your chosen “tribe”. He reports longer lives and higher happiness levels in other cultures that place high importance on socializing including Sardinia, Italy and Icaria, Greece.
In a separate ongoing study out of Harvard (started in 1938) research shows that tending to your relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Researchers conclude that close relationships protect people against life’s stresses that can contribute to poor mental and physical health.
“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism,” says Professor Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
We sat down with Dr. Jonathan Danson, a clinical psychologist at Medcan, to get some answers on how to prioritize friendships and combat loneliness. Dr. Danson works with adults to set goals and work towards change in a wide range of problem areas including relationships, stress, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and sleep disturbance.
This does not surprise me at all. Feeling valued and supported by others is one of the most important protective factors against a host of mental health problems, including stress, anxiety and depression. One question I always ask my clients is whether they feel they can confide in others. Can they share their personal thoughts, emotions, and problems without fear of judgment? When something great happens, do they feel that they can unapologetically “brag” to others without spurring jealousy or competition?
These are the kinds of relationships that are often protective. Important to keep in mind, though, is that how we perceive our relationships and connections is what really matters. It is not about number of friends or the amount of time spent with others, but whether we feel that our relationships are fulfilling and meet our personal expectations.
For people who are busy and often surrounded by others (e.g., at work), loneliness can easily be mistaken for other problems. That’s because feeling lonely is less related to actually being alone and more about a discrepancy between our perceived and desired quality of connection. So, to differentiate between busyness and loneliness, it may be best to ask ourselves if we feel as valued and supported as we’d like, rather than whether we simply have friends or other relationships.
Other signs of loneliness can include feeling down, loss of interest in activities (including socializing), and fatigue. From a cognitive perspective, we might believe that no one actually “knows” us, that others don’t have the time for us, or that we are at high risk to be judged negatively.
When we are younger, sometimes it feels like friendships “just happen.” When we are adults, it can be problematic when we assume that friendships will happen in the same way. We might see the same coworkers every day but never feel like friendship is developing. So, my best advice is to treat friendships like any other goal and expect it to take some time and effort. This could involve joining coworkers for lunch even if it means staying at the office a little later to finish our work, going to the events that we would normally skip, or signing up for a group activity.
Exposing ourselves to others in a less structured, social environment can create some sparks of connection that we can follow up on. Of course, the following up itself can be effortful and awkward, so we have to be prepared to push ourselves at least a little bit outside of our comfort zones.
I would give the same advice to someone who is lonely in their later years that I would give to anyone; they should expect building connections to take some time and effort. Since natural social exposure to others might be limited (e.g., without colleagues or a partner to go out with), though, it is often good to consider engaging in more formal social events. This can include joining social groups (e.g., weekly movie nights) or groups of people who have something in common (e.g., widowers). This is likely to help us feel less alone, and it provides a basic point of connection that can help break the ice. I always remind clients that the goal of these groups is not to like everyone (or even to like the activities they are doing with them), but to put themselves in a position to meet one or two people they can connect with.