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There is an actual, physical chunk of brain that runs your emotions called the limbic brain. You can trace its development back a hundred million years. You can see it on an MRI. Every second you spend with other people, your limbic brain is tuning in to them, being changed by their moods, and changing theirs in turn. It's a constant, life-affirming limbic dance.
Experimental psychologists have known for decades that we share moods. If you don't believe me, just think of the people who make you feel better simply by walking into a room. These sorts of interactions feel so good (directly and unconsciously) that we would wither away without them. This is why you should never underrate the emotional side of your life.
Women are better than men at keeping the limbic dance going by working to ensure that families stay connected as the years go by and by building lasting friendships and deep connections from the many different aspects of their lives. High school and college friends, friends from work, friends from raising children together, from neighborhood committees, from shared vacations -- sure, some of these bonds and friendships fall away as part of the natural cycle of growing and changing, but most women find new friendships to replace them. Women who don't find close friendships, who have trouble keeping up connections, need to make an effort to change those patterns.
Hundreds of research studies confirm that isolation hurts us and connection heals us through the same physical mechanisms as exercise and healthy diet. Blood vessels are measurably more elastic, the heart's ability to respond to extraordinary demands is higher, cardiac inflammatory protein levels are lower, and blood pressure response to exercise is better in more connected people. Their stress-hormone blood profiles are also measurably healthier than those of isolated people.
Sadly, I see people in my medical practice who give up on connection, who stop living years before they die. These are women and men who feel so overwhelmed by the prospect of getting out and building new connections that they stop trying. Our society -- with its emphasis on the traditional family structure and the workplace as centers of social togetherness -- doesn't help matters. People who lack either of those have to work doubly hard. But the consequences of not making connections are so devastating that you cannot allow yourself to retreat into isolation. The stakes are too high. A study of more than 4,000 women and men in Alameda County, California, showed a direct link between the size of one's social circle and survival, with larger circles bringing ever-greater longevity. Women with fewer than six regular contacts outside the house had significantly higher rates of blocked coronary arteries, were more likely to be obese and have diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, and were two and a half times more likely to die over the course of the study than those with an extensive social network.
Having either a good marriage or just one close friend cuts the risk of mortality by a third, and the benefit increases the more your circle broadens. It's reassuring to note that both quality and quantity count. Some people have a few close friends or family members, while others have a broad network of involvement with their community. Either works well, though it's best to have both.
Talk to any nurse about how much it matters for patients to have visitors in the hospital -- about the difference in outcome for those people who have a steady stream of visitors, a wall covered with get-well cards, flowers obscuring the monitors and tubing. But the thing is, you can't wait until trouble strikes to build your community. You have to work at it day after day, make the calls, make the effort, be the hospital visitor years before you need one yourself.
I'm lucky that no one in my own family has ever shied away from making these kinds of efforts. I couldn't imagine any other way until I became a doctor and saw the isolation in so many people's lives, particularly as they age. My mother and father each care deeply about building their passions and connections. They work hard at staying in touch with friends, and they're critically important people in their children's and grandchildren's lives. They have made living, caring, and connecting their jobs.
Optimism is an extraordinary limbic resource and is available to everyone because it's a learned skill. You can decide to be optimistic with remarkable success. Not Pollyanna optimistic, but glass-half-full optimistic, and it's worth the effort. Women who are optimistic about motherhood before pregnancy have a much lower risk of postpartum depression. Optimistic women have lower mortality rates from cancer and heart disease. It seems to help to approach illness with a positive, optimistic attitude, which may lower blood pressure and improve immune function. You recover from bypass surgery faster and better, you get out of bed sooner after back surgery, and you go back to work and regular exercise sooner. Anger doubles your risk of heart disease. But perceiving your work as satisfying cuts your risk of heart disease in half.
Generations ago, extended families provided rich, lifelong limbic safety nets and connections to the group. In the days before TV, telephones, electric lights, and convenience stores, this wasn't a choice. There was nothing to do but be within a group. The great gift of traditional societies was that you were a necessary part of the community your whole life. Okinawans, a group of people living on an island off the coast of Japan, have the greatest documented longevity of any population on earth, and in their culture older people are integral parts of the community until they draw their last breath. At 90, or 100, they are respected for their life experience and are relevant to the group.
It seems as if that model is vanishing from the planet. But our society still has all those limbic connections -- you just have to find them and put them together for yourself. For those who are frantically busy with work, the office can be an important source of connection and gratification, which helps to explain why increasing numbers of Americans of both sexes are choosing to work past retirement. Sometimes this is for financial reasons, of course, but sometimes it's due to the increasing recognition that work has a value beyond the paycheck. Part of the value is simply in the structure -- in having a reason to get out of the house in the morning. Part of the value is in the social interactions that come automatically with most jobs. And part of it is the importance of still having a role in the tribe: a defined niche in the great social order.
There are other pathways to connectedness, too, such as spirituality. A search for meaning is too profound and personal for facile advice giving, but we do know that for limbic reasons alone you should be on the journey. The growing number of reasonably well-done studies on spirituality point to its importance in our lives for both mental and physical health. Many people who search for meaning in their lives and their experience via religion or spirituality survive loss, cancer, and heart disease better and have healthier immune chemistry and lower risks of stroke and Alzheimer's disease than those who do not.
People who report that faith is an important part of their lives have higher levels of life satisfaction and emotional well-being. You can decide for yourself how much of the positive effect stems from the increased social connections offered by organized religion and how much is from something ineffable, but the simple message is that it is important to look for the meaning in your life's experience.
Every single human being on the planet craves limbic connections. We just need to head out the door to build them. The tide of social atrophy -- of limbic decay -- is not that strong. It's just remorselessly steady. The ultimate message is swim against the tide, every day. If you work at it steadily, it is almost impossible to fail.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, March 2006.