Want to Live Longer? Be More Social

Are you a loner by nature or a social butterfly? The answer could be more important than you realize. Research has shown that spending too much time alone can shorten your life, whereas being sociable can possibly lengthen it.

In today’s society, Americans are spending more time than ever alone. Data gathered by the U.S. Census indicates 10 percent of Americans spend their workday in remote offices by themselves. It also revealed that up 13 percent of Americans are living alone — this is the highest rate in the country’s history.

Research from Brigham Young University (BYU) revealed that being a loner or living alone can weaken your psychological and physical resilience. It doesn’t matter whether you enjoy being alone or not, it apparently affects you either way. The research showed that your longevity is greatly affected by your social interaction level.

 Your longevity depends on your face-to-face time

The research team led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., an associate professor at BYU, performed a meta-analysis of 70 studies with compiled data on over 3.4 million adults. Their findings definitively showed that there are strong physiological effects derived from in-person or face-to-face interaction.

Their findings showed that people have a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years if they fit into one of these three scenarios:

  • They live alone.
  • They often feel lonely.
  • They spent most of their time alone.

“I’ve spent almost my whole career studying social support, and I absolutely know the strong effects that our perceptions have on our physiology,” explained Dr. Holt-Lunstad. “But there are other determinants of health that are independent of our perceptions. Even if we hate exercise or broccoli, they’re still good for you.” 

Dr. Holt-Lunstad also added, “There are things that we enjoy greatly that are bad for our health, like eating those rich, fatty desserts or that big, juicy burger. We take great pleasure in things that are not that great for our health.”

In additional research, Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that the level of social activity also has a more definitive effect on longevity than exercise or eating habits.

Beneficial biological effects come as a result of social interaction

“If you see people face to face, there’s a biological cascade of events that happens, and we’re finding out that these biological events, such as hormones that are released, help to protect your health,” said Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of The Village Effect. “We know now that, for example, men who have intimate relationships, who participate in teams or groups, are better protected by their social relationships than they are by medication after a heart attack or stroke. It’s much more powerful than we ever believed before.”

Pinker’s book The Village Effect is an in-depth look at how crucial face-to-face contact is for resilience, happiness, and longevity. She explains how human beings are essentially hardwired from birth to have a sense of connection with other humans.

Pinker indicates that there are two specific types of social interaction that are very important to your health. One is having interactions and conversations with day-to-day acquaintances that you happen to encounter. The other is loving, supportive relationships with your family members no matter how much distance separates you.

There has been evidence of the “village effect” since 1979

A landmark study was done in 1979, the results of which were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study closely followed almost the entire population of a town in northern California for nine years.

The findings of that study revealed a significant difference in the lifespan of residents who were socially active versus those who were not. The residents who had intimate partners and were regularly engaged in social activities had twice the likelihood of outliving their more solitary neighbors. 

Increase your social connection to others

Being socially active does not come naturally to everyone. If you find yourself uncomfortable or uncertain about how to get involved in social settings, here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Look into hobbies and interests for which there may be local groups in your area. Some examples are book clubs, hiking groups, sports, or car racing events. If you don’t see a group you’re interested in, consider starting one by posting an ad in the paper or online and having a meeting in a public place like the local library.
  • Use technology to your advantage and have more face-to-face time and interaction using programs like email, Facebook, and Skype.
  • Get in touch with old friends and acquaintances you may not have seen and suggest a coffee date to catch up on each other’s lives.

Even if you are naturally more comfortable on your own, science has shown you need to have some time with others. Start slowly if necessary, like dipping your toe in the pool before diving in. The important thing is to get started.