Three friends having coffee and laughing at a coffee shop

Social Interaction Extends Your Life

Surprising science-based evidence shows face-to-face contact matters more to your health, happiness, and longevity than you might think.

Developmental psychologist and awarding-winning journalist and columnist, Susan Pinker, suggests our social interactions directly impact our survival. She has poured over stacks of studies involving large populations, and her findings reveal social integration cultivates immunity and resilience within us. She illuminates us with her observations in her latest internationally acclaimed book, The Village Effect detailing how face-to-face contact makes us healthier, happier, and smarter.

She explores how in-the-flesh encounters and forming tight bonds with families, friends, and communities harbor a unique effect on our mental and physical health. “Neglecting to keep in close contact with people who are important to you is at least as dangerous to your health as a pack-¬a-¬day cigarette habit, hypertension, or obesity,” she writes.

Keen Observer of Modern Life

Pinker has spent over two decades in clinical practice and teaching psychology after earning a BA degree from McGill University and a MASc degree from the University of Waterloo. Her weekly column, “Mind and Matter,” focuses on advances in behavioral science and appears in The Wall Street Journal. Her first book, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and was awarded The William James Book Award by the American Psychological Association.

Photo: Fronteiras do Pensamento

She has received multiple awards and recognitions for her works. Her opinions and articles on psychology, public policy, behavioral economics, business, and education, have been featured in major publications such as The New York Times, The Times of London, Psychology Today, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The Economist, and Der Spiegel.

The Biology of Social Contact

According to Pinker, human connectivity is an essential component of longevity and has a direct effect on our biology. In her TED Talk, she explains that face-to-face contact releases a flood of neurotransmitters into the body and brain that protects us now and into the future. This biological surge helps in forming trust, reducing stress, killing pain, and promoting pleasure.

Engaging in simple eye contact, a greeting, shaking hands, or even small talk are not just happy fleeting moments while we age. These interactions are powerful enough to release oxytocin that increases levels of trust while lowering stress-inducing cortisol levels. These brief encounters also release dopamine, a “happy” hormone, which gives us “a little high, and it kills pain; it’s like a naturally produced morphine.”

Social neuroscience research has found face-to-face interaction is necessary to thrive and feel well. Socially engaged individuals show a lower rate of dementia, a higher percentage of breast cancer survival, reduced stroke among men – all showing better protection through social contact than through the use of medication.

Our feeling of social acceptance and support can affect the impact disease has on our bodies. For example, research by UCLA shows social contact can switch on and off genes that regulate the growth of tumors and the level of cancer-killing lymphocytes in the bloodstream. Socially active men over 50 are less likely to have heart attacks than those who are solitary. Australian research reveals those with social lives recover from illnesses faster with MRIs showing more significant tissue repair than for those who lead isolated lives. Other studies show social participation helps retain memories longer.

View Pinker’s eye-opening TED Talk and learn about the secrets of longer living…

Virtual vs. Personal Connection

Is there a difference between live social interaction and taking in static content online? Studies conducted by the University of Maryland show a stark contrast in brain activity. Social interaction areas of the brain associated with attention, social intelligence, and emotional reward show higher activity and engagement with personal interaction compared to viewing a recording of the same information.

Communicating through online means for brief interaction is fine. Still, we are spending more of our time on the Internet than ever before, isolating us from the life-saving benefits that one-on-one bonds provide. For a more fulfilling engagement that forms trust and is beneficial to our health, live encounters are the way to go. Today, people barely value interaction with work associates or casual encounters with others, failing to recognize how essential it is to one’s health and well-being.

In a University of Wisconsin study, participants who engaged in person-to-person communication showed a significant drop in cortisol levels and heightened oxytocin levels. But participants using texting to communicate had no physiological indications of lower anxiety and were indistinguishable from those who had no contact at all.  “If you play cards or have coffee with friends once a week, that will give you a 10 to 15-year survival advantage compared with someone who sits in front of a screen all day,” Pinker says in an interview with Tech Insider.

Time to Get Social

Research shows that in the past 40 years, there has been a 300% increase in people living alone. Modern living with all its technological conveniences has contributed to a more isolated lifestyle. In the late 1980s, before the birth of the World Wide Web, Science magazine identified social isolation as a risk for premature death. Nearly a quarter of our population remains isolated with no one to interact with, reducing life expectancy by an average of 15 years.  The benefits of face-to-face contact are astounding. “It’s a biological imperative to know we belong. Building personal interaction into our cities, workplaces, agendas bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging though the bloodstream and brain, and helps us live longer,” says Pinker. “I call it ‘building your village.’ Building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death.”

You don’t have to short circuit your life and health in this Internet-driven world we live in. The importance of deepening relationships and engaging in face-to-face interaction cannot be understated. Start decreasing your screen time and increasing face-to-face time; let it become part of your daily routine. Look for opportunities to strike up a conversation, strengthen your current relationships, and form new ones. Feel emotionally connected and live longer, healthier, and happier by nurturing your person-to-person relationships. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

For more information on Susan Pinker and this intriguing subject, visit susanpinker.com.