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If you want to reboot your health this year, you can sign up for it. First triathlonkickstar a The habit of meditationor reduction Highly processed foods. But the latest science suggests the best way to improve long-term health is social, not physical.

Strengthening relationships by exercising what experts call “social fitness” is a highly effective mental and physical hack. Weight training will disappear Loss of bone density Like old age, Social competence counteracts downstream effects Chronic stress.

“Not practicing your social skills is dangerous to your health,” he says. Robert WaldingerPsychiatrist and Psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Waldinger leads Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. According to a psychiatrist who recently summarized eighty-plus years of information in his book Good life (January 2023, Simon & Schuster), the formula for health and happiness is based on positive relationships.

“If you feel alone and lonely all the time, it can be as dangerous as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being overweight,” warns Waldinger.

But they are people Wired to connect, social exercise can be difficult. There is no clear road map to building — or maintaining — a strong social life.

“They atrophy like unused muscles, like neglected connections,” says Waldinger.

Fortunately, Waldinger’s data points to exercises we can all use to improve our social skills.

Study the good life

In the year In 1938, during the worst economic depression in American history, researchers gathered 268 Harvard high school students to better understand how early psychological and biological factors influence life outcomes. For more than eighty years, the team now led by Waldinger has followed the students and their families through marriage, career, birth, illness and death. In the 1970s, 456 residents of downtown Boston belonged to another body. Research A Harvard study focused on youth delinquency and resilience.

The researchers met with participants every two years, asking them thousands of questions about topics such as mood and life satisfaction. Every five years, they take physiological measurements, including a brain scan and blood work. In the year As of 2023, the ongoing study is tracking all living members of the original participant cohort and more than 500 members of their descendants. The data collection provides an unparalleled window into what leads a good life.

When Waldinger first joined his research as a young psychiatrist at Harvard, he realized that conventional measures of success, such as achievement, status, and rewards, were a distraction from the path to true happiness. Digging deeper into the data, hundreds of subjects confirmed this suspicion. In the study, neither wealth nor social status was associated with happiness levels or longevity. In contrast, positive relationships were associated with happier and longer lives.

Other large-scale data reinforce this link between relationships and longevity. A systematic one Research evaluation In the year People with strong social ties are more than 50 percent more likely to survive than those with weak ties, including more than 300,000 participants from 2010. Loneliness and social isolation are related. Disease resistance And it may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. 30 percent. Improving social competence is important to help prevent these negative health outcomes.

What is social competence?

Scientists have been studying human social psychology in formal labs and universities for over a century, but the idea of ​​flexing your “social muscles” like your biceps or quads didn’t emerge until 2011. That’s when social neuroscientists John and Stephanie Cacioppo shared. Results From piloting a 10-hour social skills training program with the US Army. The team found that social competence exercises, such as doing someone a favor or practicing conflict resolution, reduced loneliness and increased soldiers’ well-being.

While scientists and philosophers have linked positive relationships and good health for decades, Cassiopeia and his research team were among the first to suggest that positive relationships could be equated with physical fitness. And just as you can’t stay physically fit without exercise, social fitness — the ability to develop and maintain positive relationships — dries up without consistent effort.

Social competence and the epidemic of loneliness

When the first Harvard research subjects were in their 80s, Waldinger and his team asked them to look back on their lives and share what they were proudest of. Almost everyone was talking about relationships.

“Almost everyone said: I was a good parent or a good counselor. I had a good marriage or I was a good friend,” Waldinger recalls. “Almost anyone can say: I got a lot of money, I won these awards, or I got to be the CEO of my company.”

The group continued with topics such as: Who can you call in the middle of the night if you are sick or scared? Some people made a long list. Others could not list anyone.

“It’s really lonely — it means no one in the world has my back,” Waldinger says. “The costs of that are huge, it makes us feel unloved and insecure, and ultimately it breaks our health.”

In the year In 2023, the most technologically connected time in human history, people are said to be further apart than ever before. Forty percent Older adults in the US report chronic loneliness. Add related to the epidemic Locks And loneliness has reached high levels, an end Vivek Murthy, physician and former United States Surgeon General as The epidemic of loneliness.

“When you lose emotional and social competence, you lose everything,” he says. Emily AnhaltClinical psychologist, co-founder Coa, Jim for Mental Health, and an emotional competence expert who was not involved in the Harvard study. “Everything in life is better if you feel connected to other people to get through the hard things and enjoy the good things.”

As ordered time outSome doctors go as far Tell them It has the potential to have a healing effect on patients that promotes social interaction. Emergence Data It suggests that cancer patients are more likely to survive if they are satisfied with their level of social support. Some experts liken social interaction to a vital sign — measuring people’s level of loneliness is as indicative of overall health as blood pressure or heart rate.

Social healing

It may seem that we are all required to be rabid or party animals in order to combat the pervasive loneliness and reap the positive benefits of social interaction. That is a common misconception.

Humans are social creatures, but we are not all social butterflies. Loneliness is a subjective experience. It’s not about how many friends or family you have, but how fulfilling those relationships feel. For some, the antidote to loneliness may be creating a wider social network, while a few close relationships work for others.

Anhalt says people need to actively maintain social competence. Instead of waiting until they feel lonely, people should take care of their social life on a regular basis, which by default boosts mental well-being.

“Our culture’s thinking about mental health is very reactive – we make people feel like they have to wait until things break down to get support.” For Anhalt, it’s like waiting for the first signs of a heart attack. “I want to help people think of working on their mental health as much as going to the gym and going to the doctor.”

To practice your social skills, try this training plan outlined by Waldinger in his new book, Good life:

Map your social universe

To begin social competence, start with self-reflection. Like completing a basic strength training circuit to target weak muscle groups, the following mental exercises can reveal your throbbing social muscles. First, in a journal or note app, describe how you spend your time each week and to whom. Then ask yourself: What am I giving and what am I receiving? Am I having enough fun with the people I love? Am I getting enough emotional support? Waldinger suggests taking this comprehensive social assessment every year, perhaps every New Year’s or birthday.

Strengthen support keys

Instead of aiming for total social reform, focus on improving your valuable relationships. The easiest way to do this is by asking the people we love: Is there anything I could do better in our relationship? Can I communicate differently or should we spend more time together? Based on their answers, tailor your communication or quality time to the benefit of your inner circle.

Build a daily routine

The best way to improve and maintain healthy relationships is by planning regular contact, virtual or in person. Lead in a weekly coffee date with a mentor or plan a monthly pep call with high school friends. Eliminate some of the logistical hurdles that make communication feel like a chore. There is no real representative of weekly social interactions to hit. For some, one or two a week will be enough, while others may want to plan daily opportunities for communication. Reflecting on how these interactions make you feel — energetic or fluid — will help you find your sweet spot.

Create new relationships

One exercise to keep your social muscles in good shape is expanding your network. But making friends in adulthood isn’t as easy as it once was on the playground or soccer field. A safe way to meet someone new? Engage in something you care about. If you enjoy cross-country skiing in the winter, join a local club. If you enjoy getting your hands dirty outdoors, volunteer at a local community garden. These activities provide an instant conversation starter with like-minded people. If you’re worried that no one will enjoy your company, volunteer your time to lonely seniors. As you get older, forming new relationships can feel impossible — like running a 5K marathon. Forms of friendship Mental health And in turn, our physical safety.

Do emotional pressure

And here’s a bonus tip from Anhalt: Do an “Emotional Pressure Up.” These include hitting Conversation with strangers, Saying thank you or accepting compliments politely. Start small – practice one or two emotional impulses each week. While there’s no shortcut to social competence, regularly flexing your social muscles can build stronger relationships over time.

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