I recently heard a podcast about ‘Longevity village’ in China. This is an isolated village (or at least it used to be!) where the residents routinely live 100 years or pretty close to it. Once researchers found out about it, they naturally had to figure out why these people were living so long and were so healthy. From what I heard, most of it was the obvious: hard physical work that keeps them mobile most of the day; getting up and going to bed with the sun; clean fresh food and water; natural optimism when it comes to stress; and strong social connections. The strong social connections is what catches a lot of people by surprise. What does it matter if you have a positive social network? Being a devoted pet parent, it’s easier for me to understand than for someone who doesn’t spend 90% of their time around four legged individuals.
Some of you know I am a hard core TLC addict, and I’ve been seeing ads for a new show called The Putmans, which has yet to premiere. It’s about an extended family all living in one home, which is about 25 people. I grew up in an atypical family and although we didn’t all live in the same household, we regularly interacted. If any of you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, my family was really similar. There’s the scene where Tula gets busted because her cousin sees her with her boyfriend who tells her aunt who gets in her face about him. That was pretty much how I grew up: lots of relatives who all live in the same town so we run into each other all over. We also had a tradition of getting together on Sunday afternoon/ evenings. We would eat dinner and spend time talking, playing games or passing around parts of the newspaper. Usually the television would be off and any devices would be put away. This was time we spent being together and holidays were simply to ‘all day version’ of Sunday afternoons. These weekly get-togethers ended when my grandparents passed away (we met at their house) and they are one of the things that I miss most. Although I still connect with my family, it’s mainly over the phone or through social media. While the host of the podcast feels this is still a viable connection, for me, it lacks the real connection of being in the same room with them.
SinceI grew up having my family around me, it was normal to stop at a bakery or business where a relative worked. Seeing them in stores or around town was and still is normal. Even as a child I was very aware that this was not how it was with most of my classmates and colleagues (my grandparents lived into their 90’s, so this tradition lasted well into my 40’s). I also came to realize that for friends and colleagues who grew up in other countries that this was very normal for them. For them, running into a relative while shopping or having coffee with friends was just part of every day life and most of my foreign-born friends soon came to realize that most American families have a different idea of ‘family.’
I’m not criticizing anyone’s idea of ‘family,’ but having grown up with one version and now living a more ‘standardized’ version, I know which version I prefer. I miss the connections and interactions with family, and while many of them are happy connecting through social media, I’m pretty lame when it comes to apps like Facebook or Instagram. The important aspect is the Connection. Humans are social creatures and we don’t do well in isolation. This is what makes positive social interaction important to our health.
There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment, not only in prisons but also as children. Remember all those times we misbehaved and got sent to our room? It’s solitary confinement: if you can’t work well or play well others, then you’re going to be alone. Across the world, cultures have traditionally used a form of isolation or ostracism to punish those who disrupt the society at large, and it tends to be successful. Loneliness is a huge problem, even in our cyber-connected society, and it leads to a host of health problems. As the author of The Longevity Plan pointed out, people who have strong and positive social connections live about seven years longer than those without them.
Having grown up with pets all my life, I have seen the interaction among them. Dogs are as social as humans are and while we travel in ‘tribes’ and dogs travel in ‘packs,’ it’s all the same thing: this is my social unit. We eat together, we sleep together, we play together and we work together. This is how we survive. (Cats are less social, but they also strengthen their societal bonds in the same ways.) If any of you are familiar with Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations of chimps, our closest primate cousins also travel in tribes and follow the same kinds of bonding behaviors: grooming; sleeping; eating; playing; working. We are more successful, productive and safer in our groups. A chimp, dog, cat or human is far safer in their group than on their own.
I have a very clear memory of when I began living alone, or at least being the only human in my house. It was the day my sister moved away to college: I said good bye and watched her drive away and as I walked back into the house, I realized that I was alone. More specifically, I realized that changing the lightbulb in the garage had new implications for me: if I fell off the ladder, it could be days before anyone realized something had happened to me. This is one of the reasons ’emergency pendants’ are such big business now: more of us live alone and face the same dangers.
Falling off the ladder aside, positive social connections promote a positive outlook. When we’re happy, we have others to share our joy and when we’re upset or angry, we have others to commiserate and share our burden. We have others to help with a project, come up with plans or even help with the physical labor. Remember the expression ‘many hands make light work’? Being alone makes everything harder, even the every day tasks most of us don’t really think about. Living alone, if I don’t do the dishes, they sit in the sink until I do them. The same with throwing out the trash, making a meal, doing the laundry, and the shopping and the rest of the housework. If I don’t do it, there is no one else in my house who will. That means all of the work falls to me, which means I have less time to pursue things I enjoy or to socialize.
Even taking care of my pets falls to the sole human in the pack (2 cats, 1 dog, 1 human). I notice a lot of the same bonding behavior among us even though we are different species: they will all groom each other, play with each other, sleep next to each other and eat together. As the lone biped, I am not exempt: they include me as much as they can with playing, licking and sitting on me. When we go to sleep at night, all four of us end up in the same room and usually on the same bed. I realize that most people think it’s pretty weird to consider animals as part of a family unit, but I really grew up treating them as people (they are a Who not an It.) I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter so much what we interact with so much as the fact that we do interact. If we feel we are connected and feel the benefits of those connections, then it doesn’t matter if the connection is with a phone, a tablet or a dog or a cat. We benefit from knowing that we are not alone. Recently, in fact, I was at home without my dog since I had returned from a trip on a Sunday and could not pick him up until the following day. When I went to bed that night, I was very aware that there was no dog in my house and I didn’t feel as safe as I do when he is there (he’s all of 12 lbs!) The cats were also aware that one of our pack was missing and were looking for him in the house, which felt oddly empty without his bouncing around. I know my furry little family unit looks a lot different than most and while they may not be human, they are most definitely my tribe.