The New York Times Health and Wellness blog is a big read for me. Aside from sage medical advice, the blog has articles with real heart in them, riddled with lessons to be taught and moods to be envied.
One article last month caught my eye, if only because it so beautifully infuses science and passion. The article’s writer, Jane E. Brody, speaks with great sadness about the passing of a man she loved. She uses the personal anecdote to link to a series of scientific evaluations and experiments which prove just how important social connections can be to our wellbeing.
The results were shocking even to this believer. Social connections, apparently, have a tangible impact on our health, especially in the larger terms of living and dying.
I remember back in high school when my Health class teacher drew a pyramid on the front board. At the peak was “work” and the bottom corners were “social” and “emotional”. These were meant to represent the states of health. The balance, the teacher told us, is an illusive spot in the middle, which really is never the same for any two people. Everyone has his or her balance, and if we wish for a fullness of health, we are to try and find this spot.
This sounds like old advice. Everyone talks about health these days – maintaining a healthy home or a healthy workplace. But wise words on maintaining healthy relationships are harder to come by. The problem, I think, is that the “answer” to health often seems to lie in a coin with only two sides: Professional life & Personal life. Social life is left on the table after the coin has been flipped.
“Social connections” can fit into the second of the coin’s two categories, I won’t deny that. But I’m now convinced it’s deserving of its very own. The pyramid, therefore, is a better model for life’s healthy balance. Brody’s article, and the experiments she links to, show a great power lying in our social connections. And, if having these connections can help us avoid heart disease, or make us three times less likely to die over a certain period of time, then they must be powerful enough to warrant their own category. No?
But social connections are hard to define, especially in a day when you can become “friends” with someone you’ve never met. Have a full conversation with someone you never will meet. Or, the most confounding example, you can forge a “friendship” with another person’s online profile that lists merely age, location and hobbies.
Having real social connections thus becomes even the more important. These are the pillars that matter, the ones that keep the roof on right. These social connections keep you living longer. This includes friends you talk to often and family you see, too.
But, these “real” social connections span beyond the oh-so-familiar. They can include business connections, acquaintances at work, the barista you buy your coffee from. These are still social connections and, in my eyes, important to the day-to-day forming of your healthy balance.
One of the social connection studies that Brody references has to do with pronouns. Those who use “I”, “my”, “mine” positively correlate with the risk of certain diseases. It can be too easy to slip into the habit of using these words and disconnecting ourselves from the world around us. Battle this. Strike up a conversation in line at the store, talk to your taxi driver. Ask an employee how his or her weekend is going. Engage more of your time as part of a shared experience, and not as an individual. The research shows it can’t hurt to say “we” everyone once in a while. In fact, it helps.
So, my advice is to begin to pay attention to your social connections. Tend to improving the health of this part of your life as you do your Personal and Work life. Strengthen the connections you have and forge new ones. It actually may just tack a few more years of life on!