The company we keep, it turns out, makes a major difference in the quality of our lives. Not only that, it affects both our time span and our health span. Research in this matter finds that emotional states are contagious: when our companions are cheerful, so are we likely to be; when we associate with those who are discouraged, we tend to share that sort of feeling. Habits follow the same patterns: health-oriented friends make it more likely we will share the kinds of choices that lead to health, while associates who are indifferent to this issue will make it less probable that we will give it much consideration. Our emotional states as well as our behavioral choices – such as what and how much we eat and how active we are – strongly affect the quality and duration of our life.
Several months ago this column considered the Blue Zones project now underway in north and east Hawai`i. This program aims to make it easier to engage with lifestyle choices in our communities conducive to extended health span (“live better longer” is their way of summarizing it) and it emphasizes several social elements. Their studies suggest that belonging to a faith-based group does a lot to increase aging well. It does make sense that there are significant advantages in terms of managing stress and finding meaning in our lives to be part of a group that shares a central set of beliefs and provides direct, personal encouragement and support for dealing with life’s challenges. According to Blue Zones data, people who belong to and regularly attend a faith-based organization can live 4 – 14 years longer than those who do not.
A good family life is obviously conducive to a sense of comfort and support. The Hawaiian tradition of `ohana clearly reflects the recognition of that fact and the associated cultural habit of extending acceptance and generosity to a circle wider than blood relations makes for a happier and more secure community. Not all of us grew up in the kind families we would have chosen and it requires considerable effort when that’s the case to understand and to practice the kindness that improves the situations we create as we bond to others, taking on the responsibility of enhancing life circumstances for offspring and partners. One of the rewards of making gains in this respect is a longer and better life for all involved.
“Wine @ 5:00” is another way Blue Zones suggests to live better longer. They include the caution that this guidance only applies to those for whom alcohol is not problematic and the inclusion of a specific time of day conveys the need for boundaries on the amount and duration of drinking. The main thrust of this notion is that a bit of indulgence in a safe situation with congenial companionship is in most long-life cultures a tradition that contributes to living well as long as possible.
In general, having friendly, supportive people in our lives is obviously helpful, especially when it comes to handling the more challenging times. Blue Zones advocates connections similar to the Okinawan morai, a group of five (or so) that meets together regularly to share the burdens and the joys of their experiences. At his Waimea presentation last month Dan Buettner, the instigator of the Blue Zones concept, had images of a group of women from Okinawa who had been a morai for 95 years! Imagine the sense of continuity and shared knowledge they must have! Life companions are a major contribution to aging well, especially if they take care of themselves wisely and have kind intentions in their relationship to others and their surroundings.
All these positive ways of connecting are so logical when they’re spelled out. If asked the right questions probably any of us would have come up with these concepts on our own. But there are several aspects to the concept of good company that might escape our considerations: One is the importance of respecting and appreciating ourselves. The way we think about and the value we place on ourselves is the foundation of our relationships. It is often the case that we are more judgmental and harsh with ourselves than we are with anyone else. It promotes our well-being to extend compassion to ourselves and to appreciate our ability to have survived all the scary, discouraging and confusing situations we have had to deal with over the span of our lives. We humans take in and retain negative experiences much more readily than positive ones. We tend to highlight the mistakes we’ve made and set aside the memories of times we have performed well. We have consciously to counteract that innate tendency with acknowledgement of our competencies and the fact that we’ve done well enough to have made it this far. Think of being a good friend to yourself, giving to you the acceptance, kindness and tolerance that you offer the people you care most about.
The second less evident aspect of good company is well beyond our everyday awareness: it’s our microbiome. Like it or not, one of the ways we can think of ourselves is as a habitat for other life forms — a host for large numbers of other beings. Trillions of microbes live in or on us. That population is known as our microbiome. All together, these bacteria can weigh as much as six pounds and the roles they play in our well-being appears to be extensive; just what they do and how they do it is the subject of a large and growing body of research efforts. Some two million unique bacterial genes are found it each of our microbiomes (compared with 23,000 in our cells). The ones in our intestines secrete many different chemicals, some doing the predictable work of processing what we take in, some appearing to be involved in complications such as irritable bowel syndrome, and some of which are the same as those used by our neurons (brain cells) to communicate and regulate mood. The possibility exists, though the scientists doing this work are cautious in the extreme to avoid promising too much, that they are able to alter the barriers to passage of chemicals out of the gut and into the brain; the intriguing potential that mental conditions might be caused by and altered with changes in our microbiomes is now being considered.[i]
Another recent report found that isolation of subjects in a perfectly clean environment shed biological particles from their microbiomes—bacteria, viruses, spores and more—at the rate of a million each hour into the air. Individuals seem to emit their own distinct personal microbial cloud, which of course, mingles with the clouds of those around them.[ii] We share and exchange with others much more than we might have thought: another reason to take good care of ourselves and to keep good company!
© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD
[i] Peter Andrey Smith in The New York Times Magazine, June 23, 2015
[ii] Jeffrey Kluger in Time.com, Sept. 23, 2015