One doesn’t need to look very far to find an example of society’s obsession with age. It jumps out from every magazine shelf and TV ad break in the form of slogans and products promising a cure for the relentless progress of time. Ageing is viewed as a disease or enemy, and slowing it down, or eliminating it altogether, is a burgeoning industry. Everyone wants to look younger and live longer, but the keys to longevity are not found inside a bottle. They reside in the lifestyles we lead, especially in healthy relationships.
In an era of quick fixes and fast rewards, everyone wants a magic pill for getting rich, being happy, or living longer. The truth, of course, is that there are no magic pills. Financial reward, happiness, and longevity are within our grasp, but they require habitually positive behavior, not a short-term investment. This is one of the lessons from Blue Zones – an initiative originally sparked by explorer and author Dan Buettner, who has worked with National Geographic to study unique zones across the world where individuals live an extraordinarily long time. These include small populations in Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California), and Monterrey (Nuevo Leon), where the percentage of the population living past 100 years is up to 10 times higher than in the United States.
The obvious question that springs from this research is, why? What is it about the way these pockets of people live that grants them such long lives?
Healthy relationships: the bedrock of longevity
In studying the Blue Zones, Buettner and his associates identified 9 common elements that connected these cultures, despite the fact that they lived in different environments, ate different food and spoke different languages:
1. Move naturally (this is not the same as exercise)
2. Know your purpose
3. Have a routine for shedding stress
4. Eat moderately – stop eating when 80% full, and eat smaller meals later in the day
5. Plant-based diet with meat, if eaten at all, only eaten occasionally and in small quantities
6. Moderate, but regular alcohol consumption – no binge drinking
7. Belong to a faith-based community
8. Put families first – keep elders close and commit to a life partner
9. Be part of the right tribe – behavior is socially contagious, so healthy friendships stimulate healthy behavior
In Buettner’s pyramid model, the foundation for longevity in the Blue Zones is healthy relationships – points 7, 8 and 9 in the list above. Not just romantic relationships, but broader social and family relationships too. And the key here is not quantity, but quality of relationships.
This conclusion is supported by further research. In his best-selling book Healthy at 100, John Robbins states that the most important indicator of longevity and good health is the quality of our personal relationships. And eight decades of Harvard research suggests that social connections are good for physical, mental and emotional health, while loneliness appears to be toxic. In a separate meta-analysis of 148 longitudinal studies involving more than 300 000 participants, authors of the study estimated that older people with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival than those with poor, or no social relationships. An equally significant impact is seen in romantic relationships. A major survey of 127,545 American adults found that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce or widowhood. But, again, the quality of the relationship is a major determinant of its impact on longevity – ‘good’ marriages have been found to promote health and longevity, but marital discord can have the opposite effect.
Building healthy relationships
Relationships are a rich source of joy and self-development, but they can also be tricky, especially the romantic ones. So, here are a few tips to keep you connected:
- Get to know yourself first. Self-awareness is critical to successful relationships. The more you understand yourself, your needs, your strengths, your weaknesses, the easier it is to build solid relationships that support you and the other. We all have a shadow side, and it is nowhere as prominent as in a relationship. Realising this and paying attention to it opens space for amazing authenticity.
- Be honest. Like all natural elements, relationships go through life cycles. Some relationships grow stronger as the individuals within the relationships co-evolve, while other relationships fade as the individuals grow apart. Sometimes relationships need some sustenance and attention (see the next point), but sometimes they have run their natural course. Being honest about this frees up a tremendous amount of energy for the people stuck in a stagnant relationship.
- Make an effort. I can just hear all the introverts groaning at this one – I’m one of them – but relationships take investment. Some friendships roll along effortlessly without a care, but most relationships require attention and cultivation, the same as any organic being. Think of a relationship as a flower – it needs water and care to grow. Thinking of someone while you’re brushing your teeth? Send them a message to say so. A friend send you a personal message to say hi? Don’t wait a month to reply. These examples may seem trite, but these little gestures are the sustenance that keep the flower blooming.
- Get help. All relationships run into trouble at some point, especially the romantic ones, where we often find our most sensitive triggers. Don’t be afraid to get help to iron these issues out. It is incredibly difficult to see issues objectively when you’re immersed in them – in such cases a coach, or a mentor, or a counselor can play an invaluable role in balancing the relationship.
Looking for a relationship coach or mentor? Koach.net has a database of qualified experts who can help you move into a new space of connectedness with yourself and others.