What makes for a long healthy life?
Psychologically, Seligman’s research and the field of positive psychology in general has shown us that longevity (and happiness within that lifetime) seems to be related to:
- Healthy relationships
- A sense of meaning/purpose
- Being in a state of “flow” (ie. Really enjoying the moments)
We also know through research into stress that being able to dissipate cortisol levels after a challenging event, and reduce adrenaline production can also lower blood pressure and heart rate – which has the additional effects of reducing the likelihood of stroke or heart attack or disease. Physically – exercise, and being aware of our nutrition and getting enough sleep also help with both “positive affect” (a sense of overall wellbeing – as compared with “positive emotions” which are fleeting and often in response to a stimuli).
So, what can help is understanding the mechanisms that contribute to a healthy bodily response which in turn can result in the benefits of longevity, and then engage with the things that produce that response!
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (also sometimes considered a hormone) which regulates our bodily functions and plays a large role in the parasympathetic response of calming the body – sometimes called “rest/digest” (ie. Opposing “fight/flight”). Serotonin can be stimulated by sunlight, exercise, certain foods and other healthy choices. Another hormone (and neurotransmitter) which also makes us “feel good” is Oxytocin known colloquially as “the bonding hormone. Other hormones and neurotransmitters which help us feel good are endorphins (which can be produced through exercise, as well as through meditation), and dopamine – the little hit we get when we achieve something.
Therefore it is very possible that anything which brings about a sense of relaxation, or achievement, or “being in the zone”, or connectivity, and of course self expression (so that we don’t try to contain all our anxieties like a pressure cooker) can make a difference to our health, and in turn our longevity.
1. Creative expression
Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing.
Other benefits include:
- Expression – especially of can’t or don’t want to express verbally
- Working through emotion – getting something onto paper, even in an abstract way can help minimise the negative effects of trying to hold it in
- Art facilitates a sense of ownership – a feeling of achievement that “I did that” – it’s mine
- Drawing can help improve concentration and focus
- There is a sense of there being no right or wrong – which releases a lot of pressure
- Going to a class or a group session brings you into contact with likeminded others, and gives you the opportunity for praise – which can boost your sense of connectivity.
2. Mindfulness - some alternatives to meditation
- The “zentangle” is a Mindful technique where people simply draw patterns into a rectangle – like doodling.
- OR you may even wish to use art as a tool to recognise your feelings. For example, if you choose a colour to represent anger – relax, close your eyes and free draw – look at the shapes etc Then choose a colour to represent happiness – do the same – again look at the shapes – firstly – when expressing anger you can “get it out” onto the paper, but in comparing the two pieces, you can begin to recognise when you are “doodling” – what your body is actually trying to communicate that you are feeling.
Because of how different hormones and neurotransmitters may be stimulated, you may even wish to “stack” benefits eg: drawing is expressive and you can achieve, then you do it with others and you get to bond, and on top you may draw something which makes you smile, and then consider doing it outdoors in nature and maybe even taking a walk there.
Again “healthy relationship” is cited as one of the key pillars of happiness with Seligman even adding “While healthy relationships do not guarantee happiness, happiness is not often found without them”.
There are also two types of loneliness experienced – emotional (the companionship of a specific person), or social (not having a wider network of friends).
BUT Loneliness is not to be interchanged with solitude as a choice, and neither is it to be confused with “isolation”.
In the case of chosen solitude, you have actively sought to spend time on your own, and often feel fulfilled and occupied throughout.
Isolation is where you can objectively count the number of contacts someone has – it is factual rather than emotional. Loneliness is best described as a feeling of sadness BECAUSE of not having friends/family around – it is a sense perhaps described as the “lacking” (or perhaps “loss”) of companionship. You would not be “isolated” while others are around but you can certainly feel lonely – so again, the observer’s perceptions may mislead them!
Lack of social connection is related to a raised mortality rate
- increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%
- loneliness has also been associated with other physical illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes. - - Having few connections with others may also contribute to a decline in mental health with links to dementia as well as depression. O’Connell et al in 2004 found “loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age." Further to which, because we become accustomed to what we often practice, loneliness can become a habit which can then lead to a spiral of negative feelings such as – fearing others, lacking trust in others, and even low self esteem if we begin to worry that we are struggling with making conversation with others. Not having someone to share worries with, can lead to overthinking, or biased views and solutions, and what interactions we do have can begin to feel awkward – even to the point where we begin to believe it is easier not to have them!
Things we can do – one connection at a time.
1. Join a class, club or volunteer – something you always wanted to try, or something you always enjoyed. There you may meet like-minded people where you know it will be possible to connect on some topics of conversation. Volunteering may also allow you to feel extra fulfilment at being able to give a little time back to the community. Don't forget that as well as volunteering time, you may wish to offer a charity your talents, or even become a trustee!
2. Talk about your feelings with a coach/counsellor - or try something informal! – Your GP may be able to refer you to free counselling support (although waiting lists can be long), but professional intervention, as well as working with your feelings of loneliness in a healthy way, may also help you address any reasons or behaviours which may have led to the situation in the first instance. Charities may also connect you with online forums, or for something a little less formal, perhaps you can pop into a wellbeing cafe or join a wellbeing walk. The #walkwithme campaign is encouraging people to get out for a walk once a day to boost mental health. To find out more about the campaign - CLICK HERE
3. Accept invitations – even if you are unsure if you will enjoy the event. At least you will know for next time, and you might meet other people who think the same while you are there. OR Invite people over. Being a host can be energising, and it doesn’t take a lot of work to pour a few nibbles into a bowl (and have sanitizer standing by for all the sharing). Arrange a film/sport/games night –you don’t need to worry about how to make small talk.
4. Make advance plans – This gives you something to look forward to – so call up those old friends and make a date to see them
5. Make SOCIETAL changes!
BUT something we NEED to remember when it comes to individuals doing what they can, or psychologists making suggestions – the SOCIAL AND COMMINUTY INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS TO BE IN PLACE. When it comes to addressing loneliness, I can advise all of the above and clients can engage, but then bus routes are cancelled, or there’s no disabled access, or they shut the toilets, or the start to charge to get involved and so on… There comes a point where the government needs to collaborate with urban planners to ensure that there is a consistency with accessibility and engagement with things that boost wellbeing. A great example of a solution is the creation of more “multi-purpose” buildings such as The StoryHouse in Chester – which functions not just as the theatre, but a bar, a cinema, a community space and so on… and there ARE architects and master planners willing to do this work – if they are just invited!
I have the absolute pleasure to work with award winning architects and master-planners John Goldwyn and Alexandra Steed who design communities, and I know we NEED to be working in a multi-disciplinary manner - by seeking input from people who know the environment and who plan resilient cities and communities AS THEIR DAY TO DAY JOB(!) - not just for sustainability, but ultimately for survival.
I fear that if we do not take time to listen or take advice because we haven't planned for it, we will continue to hide behind the idea of things being "unprecedented", mobilising only at the point of crisis and using a "quick fix" - when we could take steps now to build resilient, sustainable communities later "where every organism can thrive" (Goldwyn) - and instead panic at the point of crisis and do things too quickly to put a sticking plaster over the cracks. Otherwise, our lifestyle going to become as disposable as single use plastics!
It's time that we come together, to boost sustainability as a whole!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt Order The Leader's Guide to Resilience or The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness or Be A Great Manager Now