It is said that ‘no man is an island.’ Humans are social beings. Happiness is not achieved alone. Although we can be happy by ourselves, it turns out that staying connected with others can make us much happier and healthier. Isolation leads to sadness, anxiety, disease, and ultimately to premature death. The opposite is true when we are connected to others and involved as an active member of a community. In fact, among cancer survivors, social isolation has been associated with elevated risk of mortality while connection to social networks and social support has been shown to improve survival and overall health.
Research has also shown that people who are part of communities such as religious or social groups tend to be happier and actually have better physical health in life. Being an active part of community life becomes even more critical as we grow older and face challenges such as loss of a loved one that can make us feel even more isolated. An 80 year longitudinal Harvard Study, has provided great insight into how staying connected helps us to stay happy and healthy. Over the course of this long study, researchers collected data on all sorts of health indicators including blood samples, imaging tests and medical record reviews. Participants were also asked about their work and home lives including their mental and emotional health as well as interviews with their family.
Researchers found that close, authentic relationships were the key to both physical health and happiness. The people who showed the greatest satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 were the ones who were healthiest at age 80. Close relationships were better predictors of a long and healthy life than IQ, genetic makeup, money, fame or social class. In fact, the level of satisfaction with one’s relationship was a better predictor of physical health than cholesterol levels! To me, this affirms how critical our relationships are in life and why staying connected is so important. Cultivating meaningful relationships with close friends, a spouse or partner, or family members can make a huge difference in our lives.
Sometimes it is easier to get lost in achieving an external goal such as making more money or achieving greater social status. While these external things can be useful in life, they do not replace the value of having strong relationships with people who we care about who care about us. Despite all the distractions in our busy lives, it is important to take the time to invest in these relationships to strengthen our connections, as this connection may be the ultimate key to our happiness and health.
Dr. Shad (Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, MPH) is a Stanford-trained medical doctor, associate professor in academic medicine, speaker, and author with expertise in nutrition and culinary medicine, wellness, public health and prevention.
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