Friends already know that it can’t be a regular exercise routine. The key also has little to do with refraining from smoking or drinking (although I’ve never done the former and rarely do the latter). It’s also not about eating more vegetables; staying out of debt, or finding a dream job.
It’s much simpler.
The answer is having a social life.
This road to super longevity was summarized last year in a TED talk by Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker, a lecture that currently boasts more than two million hits.
In her speech, Pinker describes the tiny Italian island of Sardinia. Here, in a mountainous region that researchers have dubbed “the blue zone,” Pinker learned there are 10 times as many centenarians as those in North America. It’s also the only place scientists know about where men live as long as women.
Why is this?
Her curiosity piqued, Pinker and her daughter traveled to Sardinia for answers.
They spent a lot of time interviewing families in cozy kitchens in Villagrande, a city in the middle of the zone. Dotted with multi-storied apartments built nearly on top of one another, the town’s hilly living quarters are also interconnected by narrow roads and alleyways. It’s definitely a crowded layout, but because of that blueprint, everyone here knows everyone else.
Pinker also observed that none of elderly residents followed a low fat diet (one centenarian prepared dozens of pasta packets, plump with rich cheese and mint, every weekend). She also found that a happy-go-lucky personality wasn’t necessary for an extended life either (the grumpiest man in Villagrande was 101 years old).
But what Pinker came away with was this: no one in Villagrande was left to lead a solitary life.
That lone fact, she concluded, was the strongest indicator for super longevity.
Pinker goes on to say that one doesn’t have to relocate to Sardinia to get the same result. Other studies, she adds, show that humans need only two close relationships to thrive. These are the folks who will loan you money in a pinch; sit with you when you’re in the middle of a crisis, and bring you food when you’re sick.
But there’s another predicator—more significant and perhaps more surprising—than having a few close chums.
And that’s daily, face-to-face contact with people who aren’t friends.
This might mean handing letters to your mailman; thanking the teenager who’s bagging groceries, or waving to the woman with the beautiful garden down the street. Talking is great, but eye contact is good, too.
The reason these casual interactions is so important is this: they release all kinds of terrific brain chemicals which encourage longevity. On this list is oxytocin, the naturally produced morphine known to decrease stress levels, and dopamine, which gives off a buzz of happiness. (Also, this can only happen when contact is in person, and never online.)
Since I’m an inquisitive extrovert, connecting on this level is easy.
But I also know that this way of navigating the world can be extraordinarily difficult for those who suffer from paralyzing shyness, or others burned one too many times by folks they thought were friends. Being female is also a plus, since women tend to communicate with each other more, and also reach out for emotional support more than men do. (Pinker thinks this is also the primary reason females live six to eight years longer than males.)
As for me, I’m happy to learn that just being who I am may help me live longer.
It’s also gratifying to know this: every connection, no matter how small, counts.