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The importance of social activity

Author: Info LivBetter Reference Number: AA-00284 Views: 1817 Created: 29/04/2015 11:54 Last Updated: 17/02/2011 11:34 0 Rating/ Voters

The Village Effect by Susan Pinker review – the science of friendship

Being sociable can lengthen your life
A festival dance on the Greek island of Ikaria: maintaining physical social networks can improve health and lifespan. Photograph: Alamy

A few weeks ago I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. As I spoke to the gathered mourners, I was struck by the fact that there was not a spare seat in the packed crematorium hall. He had five children and 11 grandchildren, but still: where had all these people come from? Who were they? How did they know him?

My father was approaching his 88th birthday when he died. He had lived alone as a widower for 13 years, and he had done so having survived his own emergency operation the day after my mother died, which left him in a coma for weeks, followed by months of rehabilitation.

A lot of people – especially men – don’t survive for long on their own in these circumstances. I had been surprised at how well he recovered and looked after himself.

I had assumed he didn’t see many people, especially after he had to give up driving. He was adamant that he didn’t want to live in a home. I would regularly pick him up to take him to my house for Sunday lunch and then drive him back to what, I supposed, was a lonely life on the whole.

But speaking to mourners after the funeral, I learned that my father had developed an extensive network of local friends. There was the Indian family from the nearby newsagents who turned up with a wealth of fond anecdotes about my dad. The Polish couple who ran the cafe along the road that he visited regularly. The family across the street who told me he was on first-name terms with all the local bus drivers, whom he’d learned to address in their native tongues. And there was also a large number of old friends and their children with whom he’d remained in close contact.

According to the mass of evidence Susan Pinker assembles in The Village Effect, the secret to my father’s longevity was that he continued to see people he knew and liked daily. She tells us that chronic loneliness alters the expression of our genes in every cell of our bodies. And not in a good way.

As well as this, two neuropeptides – oxytocin and vasopressin – are secreted in the bloodstream when we form and maintain meaningful relationships, and these chemicals help to counter stress and repair wounds.

We live in a health-obsessed age in which we are assailed by reports that tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat and drink and do if we want to live long and well. But one of the principal determining factors for both are our social networks.

Not the mostly illusory ones that exist on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but those that involve physical meetings. The subtitle of Pinker’s book is Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters. Numerous studies show that, for example, people with active social lives have higher cancer survival rates than people who are isolated.

People with active social lives have higher cancer survival rates than people who are isolated

Participants at the Craft Caf, an arts course in Castlemilk, Glasgow, set up to combat social isolation in the elderly.
Meet and greet: Participants at the Craft Caf, an arts course in Castlemilk, Glasgow, set up to combat social isolation in the elderly. Photograph: Tom Finnie

That doesn’t prove a causal link. The kind of people who have active social lives might also be the kind of people with stronger resistance to cancer. Pinker is ready for this argument and promptly cites a study of rats in which the females were randomly separated, some to live in groups, the others in isolation. The socially isolated female rats developed 84 times the amount of breast cancer tumours as those that were placed in groups. As Pinker concludes: “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.”

The problem about putting the issue like this – and Pinker repeats the same point in similar ways – is that it turns the natural and enjoyable process of sociability into yet another health obligation, such as walking every day, not drinking too much and laying off sticky puddings.

“Hi, would you like to meet for lunch next week as part of my integrated health and longevity programme?” is not the sort of offer you want to make or, indeed, hear if you value family and friendship for their own sakes.

Pinker’s book is steeped in prescriptive tips for developing “tools” to maximise “social capital”. One senses that the slightly obvious advice, illustrative homilies and can-do approach to ageing is better suited to the North American market – Pinker is Canadian.

But the temptation to pathologise certain behaviours is inherent to the self-improvement genre and The Village Effect, for all its careful discussion of the science and diligent reference to academic studies, is written very much from a self-improvement perspective.

Presumably that’s what sells books. In its favour, it’s not a hard sell: the subtitle isn’t, after all, How to Stay Alive to 100. But it’s a persistent one. It’s not difficult to grasp the concept that, in an age of computerised contact, the old-fashioned habit of seeing other people in the flesh has its psychological, and therefore physical, advantages.

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