Why Love Heals: How Friendships Keep You Healthy
Finding Satisfaction in Life
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.