Why Love Heals: How Friendships Keep You Healthy
Building a Community
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.