Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Whether you’re someone who has many, many friends, or is someone with just a few super close friends, relationships are vital to our emotional well-being. No doubt!
I sometimes wonder, though, if friendship should be called “healthship.” Social connections not only give us pleasure, but also affect physical health. Many studies have demonstrated the health benefits of social connections—from a spouse/partner and extended family, to best friends and loose-but-friendly ties. Feeling connected to other people can give you a sense of purpose and meaning as well as confidence that you can face challenges, learn new things, and be resilient. Having a strong social network lowers your risk of dementia, too.
One of the bright sparks of positivity at one of our Aegis Living assisted living centers is a remarkable African-American woman whose life mirrors the wrenching challenges of succeeding in segregated America. As a centenarian, her attitude is probably her greatest gift to herself and the wide circle of friends that have surrounded her for decades.
Throughout her life, she had a vibrant community of friends. Apparently, her phone never stopped ringing and she constantly had visitors and all kinds of committees and projects she was involved in.
When she thinks about what has been most important to her long life, she says:
I try very hard to be nice to people. I feel that down the road they too will be nice to everybody. I do things for someone, not because I want anything, but because I want the person to do the same thing— or more—for somebody else. The golden rule is one of the things I believe in. I feel it’s paid off. Not everyone has done for me what I’ve done for them, but I feel like I’ve got it from somewhere.
Make New Friends and Rediscover the Ageless You
In the many interviews and conversations I’ve had with people over 80, one of the pieces of advice that has rung most true to me has been this: You have to have friends who are more than 20 years younger than you.
When I asked why, the person said, “Most of our friends who would be our age have died. If we were to do this all over again, by the time we hit 50 or 60, we’d start making friends with people who were 30 or 40. Plus younger people keep you on your toes. You can’t live in the past. They make you think about the present and the future.”
The octogenarians tell me, “Younger friends get us excited about things we wouldn’t normally get excited about. They stretch us physically, expecting us to keep up with them. They stretch our creativity and get us involved with things we wouldn’t normally do.”
If you don’t know younger people, think about your friends’ children and your kids and their friends. One woman I know had a long habit of getting together with her girlfriends in her 50s, and one day she realized that some of the daughters and sons had interesting contributions to the conversations. Instead of just catching up with old friends, she decided to get to know their adult children better.
Great Relationships Infuse Your Life with Happiness
Ultimately, I believe happiness is what many people want along with longevity; and happiness has been proven to be life-extending.
Research is proving what we’ve known from experience and observation about the value of a positive outlook and finding reasons to be happy even when faced with challenges. For example:
People who perceive aging as a positive experience are more likely to practice healthy behaviors.
People who think they’re in poor health may die sooner than those who consider themselves healthy (regardless of their actual health status).
Optimism, hope, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with lowered likelihood of heart disease and stroke.
Furthering this idea about health and happiness, researcher, psychologist, and epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe, DSc, DPhil, at University College London, led a team that studied 30,000 people over the age of 60 for eight years to learn more about aging, health, and happiness. The study found that those who were least happy were 80% more likely to develop problems with everyday activities like dressing than the happier participants.
Dr. Steptoe and his team also analyzed the results of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, which followed 11,000 people over 50. People who reported negative emotions like feeling anxious or worried were twice as likely to die within five years as people who reported feeling contented and excited. Steptoe has pointed out that this holds true regardless of age, economic status, or health status. Being happy despite challenges is health protective.
How to Improve Your Relationships, Happiness, and Mental Health
To enhance happiness and alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety, consider the following:
Let happiness be a guide. Worry less about perfection and doing everything “right.” If you follow all the “rules” ofhealth but miss out on joy, pleasure, and a sense of purpose, you’ll miss out on the health benefits of happiness.
Purchase experiences, not things. Research has shown that purchasing things like new clothes and electronics won’t make you happier overall. But buying experiences, such as travel or tickets to a play will maximize happiness. Anticipating the event and planning for it can provide even more enjoyment.
Try joining a group and be open to friends from new, different, or unlikely sources. Read the flyers at the health food store and the library to find out what’s happening in your community. Is there a gardening club or a bridge game advertised? A lecture where you might meet people interested in the same topic you want to learn more about? Take a class at a community center, church, or local college or university. You might want to think about lecturing, teaching, or leading a workshop if you have expertise you would like to share. Or volunteer to work for a cause.
Fake it till you feel it. Research has shown that when you’re feeling down, the mere act of smiling can cheer you up. Laughter can also slow your heart rate and reduce stress. Rent a funny movie or read a humorous book to improve your mood.
Join a laughter club. Laughter is a tonic for health. Studies have shown that laughter can reduce stress, improve immune function, and even relieve pain. A number of laughter clubs have developed, where people gather to laugh and do breathing exercises. Find one at laughteryoga.org.
Practice meditation. Meditation reduces stress, improves your mood, decreases your heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, and increases your production of serotonin and HDL numbers. Meditation can help you sleep better and maintain a better mood, reducing anxiety and depression. It also can help you be more focused and creative. Considering all it can do for our brains, minds, and bodies, we should all be looking at ways to meditate more.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a conscious attempt to pay attention to the present moment in a particular way and in a nonjudgmental state. There’s increasing scientific evidence that mindfulness can reduce stress, boost the immune response, improve sleep quality, and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.
You can sit to do mindfulness meditation or do mindful listening, eating, or walking. Search the Internet for instructions on how to practice mindfulness. You don’t have to shut down all your thoughts and never let yourself get distracted. You just have to practice refocusing your attention on whatever you choose—your breath, or the feel of your feet on the ground as you walk very slowly.
Try yoga. Practitioners of yoga, the ancient Indian health care practice, use breathing exercises, posture, stretching, and meditation to balance the body’s energy centers. Yoga can reduce stress and anxiety and improve physical fitness, balance, and overall functioning. Yoga should be seen as a gently flowing form of movement you can practice anywhere that will build strength, flexibility, and mindfulness.
Become a healthy habits master. Getting enough sleep and physical activity, eating right, understanding your body, and being proactive about getting the care you need can all help alleviate stress and build your resilience.
Get specific help from a doctor or counselor if you’re struggling with stress and moods. There are treatments and medications that can alleviate depression and anxiety. If you’re having a rough time managing your symptoms, talk to your doctor. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is highly effective for the treatment of anxiety. It’s shown to help people examine how their thoughts promote or worsen anxiety and how they can change them.
Join or start an exercise club. Group activities will not only provide social support, but also promote healthy habits! For example, join a weight loss or walking club, or find a friend to walk with on a regular basis. Swimming or biking with others can get you out into the community and even into nature, depending on the climate you live in.
Cultivating strong relationships is important for us all. I intentionally bring people into my circle of friends who I believe are kindred spirits, and I’ve also taken steps to release toxic relationships that drained me. Deep relationships with people other than your spouse/partner are shown to elevate a person’s well-being because people with deep relationships are much more satisfied and happier than those who are lonely.
Next time, Wellness Warriors, I want to share with you one more thing that is a critical part of my healthy habits…namely, knowing my purpose—having