Coming up on this episode of the Doctor’s Farmacy.
Dr. Mark Hyman:
Our thoughts, our beliefs, our relationships all drive real changes that we can measure in our gene expression that can [inaudible 00:00:10] inflammation, stress hormones. So for example, you’re having a conversation with somebody, if it’s a loving, connected, intimate conversation, your anti-inflammatory genes will turn on.
Welcome to Doctor’s Farmacy. I’m Dr. Mark Hyman. That’s Farmacy with an F, a place for conversations that matter. And if you want to know what works better than exercise, diet, meditation, pretty much anything else in determining the quality and the length and the health of your life, you might be surprised by what it is. It’s relationships. And today we’re doing a special feature of the Doctor’s Farmacy called Health Bites, which is little small steps you can take every day to make big changes over time.
Now, today we’re going to focus on the role of community connection relationships on our health. What do the longest living and most joyous people in the world have in common? Well, they all share one common trait, a sense of belonging, of community, of connection. When we have a tribe to lean on, when we are connected to others, when we have a sense of belonging, when we feel there’s a worth outside of ourselves, we can really tap into an incredible array of our own inner pharmacy. Not the Doctor’s Farmacy, but our own inner biochemistry lab in our brain that regulates so much of our health. So what we’re talking about today is how the strength of our relationships is one of the key factors, maybe the key factor in determining longevity.
I’ll just tell you a quick story about a community I might have mentioned before, but it’s Rosetta, Pennsylvania, and it was read about this years ago, in one of Deepak Chopra’s books. And they found that there was this tribe of, not tribe, but community of Italians that came over on mass from Italy, from this little town in Italy. And there were all different levels of society, wealth and achievement and success, at least monetarily. But the all came over. But the thing that was unique about them was that they had a deep sense of community. And no matter what station of life you were or who you were, everybody celebrated everything together. All the holidays, all the birthdays and the weddings and the funerals and everything was in community. And then when they came to the States, they adopted the same crappy lifestyle habits as Americans, but they didn’t die at the same rate because they had this sense of connection.
Now, we know a lot about this research because one of the biggest factors in terms of your risk for premature death is loneliness. Being lonely and socially isolated is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. That’s really serious. So biological aging, as a result of all of our stressors and our psychological stressors and relational stressors, our lack of connection, it’s really important. Lack of physical touch, lack of intimacy plays a huge role, lack of being understood and seen and witnessed plays a huge role in so much of the ailments that we’re suffering. Not just mental illness, but also physical illness and our longevity.
So this whole idea of sociogenomics, I actually came up with this term years ago when I was in Haiti, and then it became part of medical literature, not because of me, but because other people also started glomming onto it. And it was this idea that our social relationships and our social networks maybe more important than our genetic connections in determining our health and our health outcomes, and that our lifestyle certainly influences our genes, but so does our social connections, our relationships influence our gene expression. And it’s really not an abstract theory or notion. It literally is biology. Our thoughts, our beliefs, our relationships all drive real changes that we can measure in our gene expression that can [inaudible 00:03:58] inflammation, stress hormones.
So for example, you’re having a conversation with somebody, if it’s a loving, connected, intimate conversation, your anti-inflammatory genes will turn on, your healing and repair genes will turn on. Whereas if you’re in a conflictual relationship or a conversation with somebody, you’re going to have your stress hormones increase, you’re going to have inflammation increase, you’re going to increase all sorts of bad things in your body that are produced by your body that cause harm. So we have huge, huge, huge motivation, I think to focus as a key part of our health strategy and just life happiness strategy, a deep sense of community and making sure we build that. So our social connections, our community, our relationships all are associated with long lifespan, with a better mental health, with improved physical health and things like blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass, inflammation.
Now as in Ikaria and Sardinia, which are in two of the blue zones in Nicoya Peninsula. And one of the things these communities have in common where people live to be longer than anywhere else, and I wrote a lot about this in Young Forever, my new book, was the power of community. They all were part of this fabric, and they all had their place, they all had their role, they all had a meaning and purpose. Even if you’re 100 years old, I remember Julia was 103 months she said, and she basically was still working at 100 years old making all sorts of wedding accoutrements like doilies and little lace things. I don’t know what they do in Italy, but it was kind of cool to see she was constantly working and making stuff for all these weddings and was still involved in the community life.
So I want to share a little bit about a study that kind of reflects the power of this. And it was an 80 year study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. And it had been producing data on so many different things on who lives longer, happier, healthier lives. And they wanted to understand not what makes people sick, but what makes people thrive, what makes them well. So what were the lessons from this study, 84 year study, long study. They were tracking the same people and over generations asking thousands of questions, hundreds of measurements to find out what really makes people healthy and happy. And these people were giving regular updates on their life, their health, their income, their employment, their marital status, they filled out questionnaires and were part of interviews where they revealed their fears and their hopes, their disappointments, their accomplishments, their regrets, life satisfaction and lots more. And this had a really incredible impact by providing lots of data and then researchers used this data to assess how people’s lives, their experiences, their attitudes affect their wellbeing.
And one of the thing that was so powerful from this study was sort of surprising. It wasn’t career achievement, it wasn’t exercise, it wasn’t a healthy diet that determined the quality and happiness of your life. It was good relationships. Good relationships keeps us healthier and happier. That was powerful. And the study’s leaders … I mean obviously the people that started the study are dead. The current leader of the study, Robert Waldinger from Harvard and Mark Schultz have a new book. It’s called The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. And it’s a great book. I actually had Robert Waldinger on the podcast at Doctor’s Farmacy. And you can learn more about the book and things there, but what are the things that we can do? What are the lessons learned from the study about how do we improve the quality of our relationships?
First, we have to look at ourselves. Who are we? What is our life like? What are the choices we’re making? How are we not prioritizing relationships? So we can get really busy, we can do all sorts of stuff that we think is helping us get ahead. We can spend too much time on social media, but we often don’t really think about building and investing in the quality and the number of our relationships. And for me, I know personally that my relationships, my friendships, my community is the most important thing for me. It really is what keeps me grounded, keeps me healthy, keeps me happy. And more and more as I get older, I focus more on this as opposed to when you have kids and a career and try to just get by. And it’s like sometimes friends can fall by the wayside, but it’s really important to find, and it even can be just one or two good friends. It makes a huge difference.
Now, when these people in the study actually were interviewed, they really actually benefit from these interviews because it helped them realize where they neglected their relationships. And then they considered sort of looking and finding, oh, how can we improve that? So look at your own life, what’s your social life like? Who are the people in your life that you care most about, that you want to have a relationship with? Think about how they support you and how often you spend time together and maybe do a little bit of effort to actually focus on what matters to you most and help you make decisions that actually can enhance the quality and number of your relationships. So maybe spend more time with people who make you laugh and who elevate you and less time with people who drain you and are energy saps.
So I think it’s important to find friends and community members that help bring you up and not take you down. Sometimes you meet with people and all they want to do is complain and go on and on about everything. And I think there are other people who, when you’re around them, you laugh, you have fun, you play and that’s what you want. Prioritize your relationships. We schedule in exercise, we make ourselves maybe time to make a healthy diet, we focus on our career and work, but we don’t focus on prioritizing those relationships that matter and showing up and being present for us. Rather than zoning out on social media, rather than doing a million things at once, focus on your relationships.
And during COVID, I think we all felt a little isolated. And so I reached out to about 6 of my close male friends, and we all have known each other for 40 often plus years, maybe 35. The fewest, I think was 25 years. And so we’ve known each other and we’ve formed this group. And every Tuesday at six o’clock, we meet for an hour and a half and spend time together and share about our lives. And it’s been one of the most impactful things I’ve done. And it’s something you can do. It doesn’t take any organization. You just need a Zoom link, it’s really pretty easy. And you can have these deep connections and relationships that allow you to be seen and known and can really help activate so many healing pathways in your body.
Make time to talk to people. And it came in sometimes those small relationships that matter. But a study in the University of Kansas found that the simple act of just reaching out to somebody, a friend for conversation once a day dramatically increases happiness and lowers your stress hormones. So hanging out with friends lowers your stress hormones. Pretty good.
And then also, it’s not all about you. So take time to ask questions, find out what’s exciting for them, find out what they’re struggling with, find out what makes them happy, have them share their life with you and value their opinions. Be present, focus. And don’t just kind of be superficial with them, but go deep. So maybe try to have one conversation a day and put that in your calendar and see what the effects will be over time. Super important.
Next thing is be kind. My grandmother used to ask my mother when she came home and said, “I met this new friend.” She says, “Are they kind?” And I think kindness was such an important value in my family, and how do we be kind to each other? And relationship happiness is determined by how you are in that relationship. And there was a research study in Michigan State that looked on data for 2,500 married couples, and they found how good they were in 5 different dimensions. Were they extroverts? Were they agreeable? Were they conscientious? Were they stable emotionally? Were they open to doing new things and experiences? And the ones who had higher levels of agreeableness and emotional stability also had higher happiness. So the more kind of and positive you were, the more likely you were to be happy. So people invest a lot of time in finding someone who’s perfectly compatible, but that might not be the whole story. It’s more about being kind to the people you care about and fostering those deep connections.
Also, a friend of mine had a word that I really loved, which is called coptoitiveness, which is where you cop to it. If you screw up, if you make a mistake, you cop to it. And it’s really about learning to apologize, learning to repair relationships, learning how to have nonviolent communication and owning your stuff. Like I said, also a great way to build relationship is to ask questions. Instead of talking about yourself, ask questions about somebody. Show that you care. Show that you’re interested in what they care about, are thinking about. If someone wants advice, don’t just give them your opinion. Ask them questions to guide them to the right answer that they know themselves.
Also, don’t be shy about expressing your love. There are lots of ways to love and lots of ways to express it. Maybe it’s simple things. I had a flight that came in the other night late, and I usually take the Uber home and my partner, she showed up unexpected and picked me up at the airport. It just brought me such joy and delight. It was such a simple thing. 10, 15 minutes from the airport here, and it wasn’t a big deal for her, but it made a huge difference in terms of my own happiness, and it was really powerful. So help your friends with a project. Ask them what they need to do, whether it’s clean up the garage or work on a project together. Call an old friend. Maybe they haven’t heard from you in a while. Maybe you just want to check in on them, ask them how they’re doing. Maybe you want to focus on helping somebody who’s trying to do something that may be difficult for them, trying to support them and give them some love.
Also, when you have a partner or a close friend, do little acts of kindness. Give them a little gift. Buy them something they like, something that makes them smile. Can be super simple. When you often don’t do these acts, life just is a little bit flatter. And when you do them, it’s super fun. Like I said, my partner picked me up at the airport. It was like, wow, I got that she really cared.
Also, tell people how you feel about them. Don’t wait until their eulogy to tell them all the things you like about them. Be specific. Give people feedback about what you love about them, what you like about them, what makes you happy, and how you feel in their presence. Who would you be without them? Who would be now that you’re with them? What do they inspire you to do? And thank them for what they do and how they show up for you. Don’t be shy. Like I said, don’t wait till someone’s dead to write a eulogy about them. It’s better to have eulogies when you’re alive. And I’ve actually had a friend group where we would get together and on people’s birthdays, we would basically go around and for everybody’s birthday, we would share a little bit about what they’re like and what we like about them, what we love about them, something that inspires us about them. And it’s like getting a living eulogy. It’s pretty awesome.
So I really, really, really invested in my own friendships, in my own community, and I think it’s a critical aspect of our health. And as I get older, it becomes more and more important. So make sure that you take the time to invest in good relationships, because good relationships is just important or maybe more than eating healthy and exercising and getting enough sleep. So hope you’ve loved this little Health Bite podcast. It’s never too late to invest in good relationships and cultivate new ones. Not only will it help you live a long time, but it’ll help you feel happier and more fulfilled throughout your whole life. So that’s it for today’s Health Bite. I hope you liked it. Be sure to share it with your friends and family on social media. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are, how you cultivated and built great relationships, and we’ll see you next time on The Doctor’s Farmacy.
Hi everyone. I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. Just a reminder that this podcast is for educational purposes only. This podcast is not a substitute for professional care by a doctor or a other qualified medical professional. This podcast is provided on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services. If you’re looking for help in your journey, seek out a qualified medical practitioner. If you’re looking for a functional medicine practitioner, you can visit ifm.org and search their find a practitioner database. It’s important that you have someone in your corner who’s trained, who’s a licensed healthcare practitioner, and can help you make changes, especially when it comes to your health.