This week SMART Living 365 is pleased to introduce you to Donna from Retirement Reflections as guest blogger while I am traveling. I have been reading Donna’s blog for nearly two years and believe she offers ideas that are inspiring, practical and SMART regardless of whether you are retired or not. Thank you, Donna, for filling in and sharing your thoughts with us this week.
When cleaning out a box of old letters and memorabilia recently, I came across a few of my old school report cards. I smiled at the recurring comment, “Donna spends much time chatting with others.” This behavior was definitely in the “things that could be improved” category. What my teachers failed to add was “If Donna continues this behaviour…it could lengthen her life!”
Researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill combined data from 148 studies that looked at factors that lengthen our lives. Within this research, numerous lifestyle behaviors were examined and ranked based on their impact on longevity (diet, exercise, heart health, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, doctor visits, flu vaccines, air quality, etc.). Two factors were consistently found to impact health and longevity much more significantly than previously realized. One was close, dependable relationships with friends and family. The other was social integration.
Social integration can take on different meanings in different contexts. The definition used in this study was the amount of daily interaction with others, regardless of how strong or weak the bond. This interaction can be as casual as chatting with the cashier at a local grocery store. I was intrigued and wanted to know more.
In her Ted Talk, ”The Strongest Predictor of How Long You’ll Live,” Susan Pinker, Canadian psychologist and author of The Village Effect, referred to the above research. She also gave detailed examples of the powerful effects of social integration by sharing case studies of individual residents of Sardinia, Italy, a documented ‘Blue Zone.’ (Kathy has also written about Blue Zones before.) In alignment with the above researchers, Pinker found social integration to be an innate human behavior that is key to our longevity.
Neuroscientists repeatedly tell us that regular face to face human contact releases a multitude of neurotransmitters that lower stress levels, reduce pain and induce pleasure. Eye contact, handshakes and high fives all release oxytocin, which lowers cortisone levels. Dopamine is generated with each of these activities, all which add a positive lift.
Many lifestyle factors such as clean air, keeping hypertension in check, weight management and exercise were determined by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lead author on the Brigham Young/Chapel Hill Review, to have less weight than close relationships and social integration in terms of lifespan. However, such factors obviously should not be ignored and replaced by increased social interaction alone. Close family relationships, daily intersection with other villagers, laughing regularly with friends, and celebrating elders, are each believed to be major contributors to the longevity of residents in Sardinia. A lean, plant-based diet, walking five or more miles a day, a daily glass of red wine and regularly drinking goat’s milk have also been found to contribute to the long life of these Italian villagers. On top of this, genetics were deemed to contribute up to 25% of their increased life expectancy. This reinforces the concept that a variety of factors come into play regarding our mortality.
Studies detailing how we are impacted by social integration do not end with longevity. Researchers, including Holt-Lunstad, have also been examining the effect of social relationships on our mental and emotional health and well-being.
From my perspective, ‘Positive Aging’ is about engaging fully in life as we age. With Positive Aging we become informed and use that knowledge to take control and live our lives as richly and fully as possible.
Researchers confirm this by reporting that social support directly benefits psychological well-being and mental health. It can provide greater feelings of self-efficacy, higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of depression and distress. Psychologists have also noted that social integration can encourage and model healthier behaviors, which may be as simple as eating breakfast or joining a friend’s walking group.
Further extolling the potential benefits of social integration, psychologists have also indicated that social relationships offer an opportunity to provide support to others, which can lead to increased feelings of independence and usefulness. Moreover, people who give support are often found to receive increased support, perpetuating a healthy giving-receiving cycle.
Like so many things of value, positive aging requires an active, ongoing practice. Too many of us know someone who was once socially and physically active. Bit by bit, without realizing it, that person began to put off activities and relationships for another day, eventually finding him/herself trapped by inactivity and loneliness. This pattern combined with declining health becomes a vicious circle.
I had initially planned to declutter several more sections of my crawl space and hang out on my computer for a while. I put both the boxes and my laptop aside, grabbed my coat and went out for a walk. A stop at my local coffee shop would be a nice addition to my morning..and you never know who I might meet there or along the way. At least I would stay in the habit of being active, putting myself out there and practicing a lifestyle philosophy in which I fully believe!
Okay your turn: Do you agree? Have you found it increasingly important to surround yourself with caring & close friends as you age? Please share your thoughts below and be sure & send Donna some appreciation for being a guest author here on SMART Living 365!
About Donna: Donna lived in Beijing, China for fourteen years. Leaving international life behind, she and her husband retired to Vancouver Island, Canada, in June 2015. To document this transition, Donna initiated ‘Retirement Reflections.’ Her favorite part of blogging is the interaction with others. You can connect with Donna in the comment section below, or via the following social media sites. She would love to hear from you.
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Thanks, Donna. Great piece. I began researching healthy aging shortly after I retired (5years ago) and then got caught up with other activities. I hope to learn more from your blog and perhaps return to my own research.
I think our mobile lives, moving from place to place over a lifetime following jobs, can contribute to a sense of being not well connnected in a community or even feeling outright alienation. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone, with extended family nearby. People who spend a lifetime in a village or small town are likely to be socially well integrated. One of the big change factors in human geography over the past century has been the decline of the family farm and the consequent flood of people from rural areas to cities. It has resulted in not only the loss of social integration, but the loss of communities.
Hi Donna! You did an amazing job falling in for Kathy while she is away. I totally agree with your topic. Because it makes sense, but also because I have experienced the benefits of social interaction. Currently, it is the lack of social interaction. The “only” downfall about house sitting is that you don’t really make friends or have lots of social interactions, especially when you work from home. Luckily, the blogging community makes up for some of that.
I have one provocative question, though… would it be better to socially interact with someone you don’t care about or not interact at all that day? 🙂 I guess, above all, you should hang out with people you like and who think positively. Sometimes, though, I am so socially deprived that I’d talk to anyone!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna and everyone! Kathy here from Baja Mexico. Sorry I haven’t been in touch much…wifi is sketchy at best here and we’ve been very active. But thank you Donna for watching over all the comments AND for your interesting post! It’s so nice to be able to travel and know that all is well in “SMART Living Land!” ~Kathy
Hi, Kathy – Wonderful to hear from you. Your FB photos of Baja look amazing! Thank you again for inviting me to Guest Host. I’ve loved the provocative points raised and the depth of discussion. We all look forward to reading (and viewing) more about your trip!
Karen Hume says
Thanks for the interesting post. I was with some friends the other day and one of them was talking about how connected she is. She sustains lots and lots of friendships, whereas I have a handful of really close friends i’ve known for decades.
When I read about being socially integrated, I sometimes worry that I’m not connected enough, and I worry even more that I really don’t want to be. It helps, however, to know that casual social integration counts. I love the easy chatting I do with shopkeepers and strangers in the small town near where I live.
Hi, Karen – According to this research, you are in luck! For close friends/family (which was #2 on their list of top contributors to longevity) three+ was the magic number of the quantity that they believe was needed to count for this measure. It really was the quality of those relationships that mattered most. Social integration (which they ranked #1) was exactly as you say, casual chatting with shopkeepers and other people in your community. The more that I read of this research, the more it made sense to me.
Marcus Buckingham wrote “Now Discover Your Strengths” a book that encourages you to learn where you excel and bolster those skills rather than trying to address short comings. I enjoyed the book and agree with his findings. The strength you describe Karen is called Relator because you meet people but chose just a few to become very close with. Whereas your friends strength is referred to as Wooing – meeting many new people on a regular basis. I share your Relator style. I don’t see it as a negative but rather our Personal preference on how to sustain relationships. I believe both are effective!
Definitely. I was just writing an email to a woman who has started a Resistance group in my area. She is struggling to put things on our agenda and I suggested that we TALK. Each person in that group has some history to share, some anger or hurt that has drawn her to the group. Openness in society is the only way we will win our battles. Human beings can be so awesome if they would only LISTEN before they speak, balance their words, be kind.
This is so true! Human beings can be awesome. I agree that openly listening to others is the key.
Joanne Sisco says
While interesting, these studies tend to make my head hurt because it’s hard to isolate cause from effect. Is positive social interaction simply the end result of a positive attitude, or at least a willingness to engage with others – however brief? Social interaction then becomes an indicator that the individual wants to continue to engage with life.
Maybe this is why many elderly begin to slide into isolation, because they are no longer willing or able to engage – and that this is in fact an indicator that it’s the beginning of the end.
Hi, Joanne – Thank you for this insightful comment. That research that I read stated that Holt-Lundstat’s team, as well as Susan Pinker and others, deliberately isolated social interaction from other factors (positivity, etc) within their studies. However, if they were able to isolate this as much as they believed remains a valid question.
Tom Sightings says
I read the Blue Zone book and found it very inspiring. One item Buettner brought up that I agree with . . . one of the benefits of social interaction is that it helps you avoid self-defeating behavior. When you’re with people (maybe not as a teenager, but at least at our age) you’re less likely to engage in risky behavior, less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to solve your problems, and more likely to eat right, sleep right and exercise right. Anyway . . . great post! So, will you be my friend over at Sightings Over Sixty? Thanks!
Hi, Tom – I also agree that social integration can encourage and model healthier behaviors as we age. I have repeatedly seen this in action. And, of course I will be your friend at Sightings Over Sixty. I am heading over there right now!
Lynn ~ Encore Voyage says
Tee hee! I was the girl who’s report card said “Needs improvement – Is talkative.” Glad to know that this trait of mine (along with some occasional red wine) is contributing to my longevity. Along with longevity, we’ve found that being deliberate in replacing/continuing those social interactions that were inherent in the work environment are crucial to our retirement happiness! ~ Lynn
Hi, Lynn – Yes! Red wine was also found to be a contributor to longevity in many of the Blue Zone studied. I agree that we often need to be deliberate in replacing/continuing our social interactions once we leave the workplace. It doesn’t need to be a large amount of social time to make a positive difference. Thanks so much for stopping by and contributing to the discussion!
Hi Donna, I find I isolate myself more as I grow older as well. Here’s another interesting challenge I face. As you know, I write a blog. I find I’m spending hours each day reading blogs written by others and commenting. I love it. But hours later, when I turn off my computer, I realize I’ve been exchanging ideas with people I’ve never met and probably never will. They are virtual friends. On one hand, it’s a completely awesome thing. On the other hand, it’s kind of weird and reminds me it’s another way to physically isolate myself in older age.
Hi, Cathi – This is such an interesting dilemma. I can extol the virtues of blogging forever. Still, recently I found myself curious to know what else I would be doing in retirement if I was not blogging. I did a week long blog-free, computer-free experiment and discovered that I often simply replaced reading on-line (in front of my cozy fireplace) with reading a book (in front of my cozy fireplace)! Perhaps my results would have been different in the summer? Your point is very thought-provoking!
Lynne Spreen says
As an introvert, I sometimes have to force myself to get out and interact with humans IRL. But I do it, because I always enjoy it and it’s good for me. Thanks for the reminder.
Hi, Lynn – Thank you for adding to the discussion. It is amazing how many bloggers (who are very outgoing and engaging in the blogosphere) consider themselves to be introverts IRL. I am glad that you enjoy social interaction when you remind yourself to get out there. I greatly appreciate you stopping by!
Jan Wild says
Absolutely true, one of the great ‘losses’ when we depart our careers, is interactions with work colleagues. It takes effort to build new relationships in retirement but it is so rewarding.
Hi, Jan – I agree with you on all points that you have made above. Since I worked overseas, it is a long way to travel to see old friends and colleagues. I was recently in Singapore and saw several friends/colleagues there….many of whom I had not seen for several years. In all cases, it was like we had just seen each other the day before. It was very cool!
Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com says
Even though I am an introvert, I think I had similar comments on my grade school report cards too. But I guess that makes sense, I have always been comfortable interacting in small groups of people I know… not so much with strangers. I have, though, gotten much better with small talk (in grocery store lines, at coffee houses, etc.) and I really do enjoy it. The more I do it, the better I get. I know that these random bits of social integration make me feel good (especially if I can make someone smile) so I’m not surprised that there is science backing up its positive effects. Social integration was a natural part of my working life, now that I’m retired, it takes more of an effort to seek these opportunities out, but its well worth it.
Good thing that we were not in the same Grade School, Janis….I really would have been in trouble! The research that I have read and viewed did appear to include all personality types (extrovert, introvert, positive outlook, negative outlook…). It didn’t seem to matter if people where the center of attention or not. Rather it focused on individuals having some close relationships with family/friends and having connections (no matter how simple) to one’s community. I agree, well worth it!
Jill Weatherholt says
Great to see you here, Donna! I fall into Ally Bean’s camp when it comes to being an introvert. I was an extremely shy child and now, as an adult, I’m very uncomfortable being the center of attention. However, one on one, or with strangers, I’ll chat up a storm.
Hi, Jill – From both of your writings, I would never guess that you and Ally both consider yourselves to be introverts. That’s another thing that I love about blogging — it allows us to be ourselves without the typical ‘societal constraints’. Thank you so much for stopping by. I greatly appreciate it.
Hi Donna and Kathy, it’s so interesting to read these sorts of studies and see the results in our own lives. I agree that social interaction is vitally important particularly when you’re retired from the paid workforce. I know I have to go looking for my daily dose of interaction these days rather than having it as part of my work day. I think feeling connected in a small community is quite easy and the blogging community also offers positive social interaction too. I love receiving comments and connecting with others. Thanks for the interesting and relevant post ?
Hi, Debbie – You make an excellent point. Social integration is often included when being part of a workforce. When you leave the work place, it is up to you to make and nurture your relationships and ensure that you are part of a community. When recently visiting family and friends in Singapore, many of them wondered why I was only staying for two weeks. Since they are still working, they couldn’t imagine what I had to come back to. It was hard to explain that no matter how much I adore travel and LOVED seeing them, I also have big FOMO when I am away from my friends and activities back home! 🙂
Hi Donna & Kathy, I couldn’t agree more and have also written about the importance of staying connected as we age. My MIL is a wonderful example. After turning 90 and suddenly losing her husband of 70 years she went into a decline. All her friends had moved or died and she was alone. After falling ill, it was decided she move to an aged care home. Almost Two years later her life has taken a 360 degree turn and I’m sure I will be planning her 100th person. The interaction and connection with other residents and staff at the home plus all the activities they have has given her a new lease of life. She is living proof that social interaction certainly is vital for positive and healthy aging. Thanks for a great read and I will be checking out the TED talk and Blue Zones. Have a great week!
Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond
Hi, Sue – After reading several of your posts that include your MIL, and seeing her photos, I agree that she is an outstanding example of how staying active, and being connected with others, can help keep us healthy and increase our longevity. I didn’t realize that she had such a remarkable turnaround. Thank you for sharing this. I think you will enjoy the TedTalk. I found it very inspiring!
I knew that those comments on my report card were positive reinforcement!! LOL I was always told I was too sociable…..now we know we were developing habits for a long life!! Thanks for that tidbit Donna….
Hi, Georgia – Thank you for stopping by Kathy’s site. Now we are totally busted if our grandchildren are reported to ‘talk too much’ in school! 🙂
Ally Bean says
My report card was about the complete opposite of yours: Ally is shy and quiet, rarely initiating a conversation with anyone she doesn’t know already. I can chit-chat with anyone now, but at heart I’m still an introvert who’d rather not. I enjoy the freedom of NOT being around people, especially as I get older. I bet a bunch of extroverts designed this study… it sounds like them! ?
Hi, Ally – Too funny about extroverts being at the helm of this study. I don’t have any information about that but I was struck by how basic the interactions needed to be. My take away was the importance of feeling a part of your community, however you define that, and not feeling isolated and alone. Interesting stuff!
Ally Bean says
I’m not really a hermit, but I do wonder sometimes about the theoretical underpinnings of these studies. I find it encouraging that the interactions need only be in passing to have a positive effect. That makes sense to me.
Hi, Ally – I often have the same question about studies that I read. The core study that I used for this research was a compilation of key research studies done in this area. Some findings made common sense to me while others were the exact opposite of what I would have guessed!
Aimer Boyz says
Does online interaction count? 🙂
Hi, Aimer – Great question! Sadly, the research that I read claimed that on-line interaction does not count in the same way. Apparently body language and its (unconscious) effect on us has a great deal to do with these findings….as do other things that are exclusive to IRL. However, this question is definitely worth more research! Thanks for stopping by here — greatly appreciated!
Cracked me up about your report card! I think I must have been in the same group. Always a chatty Cathy, I learned from my Mother. My Dad used to be amazed at what my Mother would learn about strangers in a short amount of time and make them feel at ease and part as friends. So is there longevity in my genes or just talkative social skills? Perhaps both!
Hi, Haralee – My guess is that both nature and nurture come to play here. You are lucky to have a mother who was such a positive model of friendship and making others feel at ease. Thank you for commenting. It is greatly appreciated!
louise tilston says
that’s very interesting. just recently as I have spent more time thinking about where I should be living in the next chapter of my life, the idea of over 55 active communities continues to intrigue me for the very reasons you write about. while I want my independence and own space, I also want to walk out my door and engage with other like minded people and not live in a neighbourhood where everyone is off to work and then busy with their young families.
Hi, Louise – Knowing you IRL, I have no doubt that you will engage with other like-minded people no matter where you live. You are a true example of close personal relationships, social integration and active living. Very inspirational!
Donna, Your hindsight as to what your teacher should have written is wonderful! The other day, Karen (profound journey) talked in a comment about the quandary of being “a hermit or a socialite”. It’s interesting to me that I need my socialite moments! I can have some hermit days, but too many and I’m feeling disconnected and adrift.
Social interaction for a introvert can be challenging. Adding in the loss of natural connections of the workplace, and you have a recipe for disaster. I’ve written about investing intentionally in creating and maintaining social connectivity since entering retirement. For many of us it does take intentional, sometimes challenging, actions. I can say for me, it’s been worth it!
I too found this meta-analysis research intriguing and love the term social integration. And I’m now reading the book Blue Zones to see if there are any additional nuggets in the in-depth analysis. Have you read the full book?
P.S. Good to see you guest posting here!
Hi, Pat – Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a meaningful comment. Yesterday I met up with another blogger IRL and we both mentioned that of all of the rewards of blogging, meaningful and engaging comments are number one! I agree that social integration can be challenging for many. The good news is that the interactions do not need to be long or drawn out, as long as they are consistent. I haven’t read Blue Zones yet but have it on my list!