March 2020: The life saving nature of Friendship


By Clive Lindley-Jones | February 28, 2020 12:43 pm

Love and Connection: A fundamental Human Need

“The world’s longest-lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviours, Okinawans created “moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So, the social networks of long-lived people have favourably shaped their health behaviours”.

”Fi-tu-ya chimu gukuru.

What counts most is heart”.

Okinawan proverb

am 23 years old, alone in a seedy hotel in Taipei, Taiwan.

I lie awake, quietly groaning to myself, late into the night the noise from the
mah-jong games in the café below mixed with raucous voices enjoying a night
out, I am increasingly aware of the pain in my gut that seems to come in waves
of increasing intensity.

have been travelling through Asia for over nine months and now find myself in
yet another strange land, ten thousand miles from any friends or family.

am increasingly worried that I may be seriously ill. I don’t speak Chinese, its
late at night and I don’t know the town at all, or where the hospitals are.

am having the adventures that I wanted but this is more of a challenge than I planned
for. I feel intensely lonely.

is one of my memories of acute loneliness that I am very happy is, just that, a
memory. Most loneliness is less exotic, and acute but perhaps more chronic. Obviously,
I did not die in that seedy hotel, that long night of worry and loneliness.

it happened, I soon recovered and, by way of some old steamers and sleeping on
the beach in Okinawa, I made my way, eventually, to Japan and started a new
life in Tokyo on my own. I did not know at the time I passed through Okinawa,
or later when, in Tokyo when I had an Okinawan girlfriend, that Okinawa people are
the longest living on earth. It seems that connection with others, as the quote
at the top makes clear, is a key marker for a long and healthy life.

is something we all experience as some times in our lives. If you have not yet,
just wait a while and, sadly, you probably will. It’s no fun but could it impact
on our health? You bet!

A couple
of years ago I wrote a blog about assessing
your social support
and quoted another Okinawan proverb then. As well as
passing through there on my travels, I am aware that Okinawa is, what has
become known as, a blue zone. One of
those places in the world where the people seem to live an unusually long happy
and healthy life. Friendship and connection play a vital part in this healthy
life, of greater benefit than the down side of obesity, a known contributor to
an early death.

We are experiencing an
epidemic of loneliness in our world today.

The quality of our social interactions, more than the number of our
relationships, determines loneliness. In a recent
national survey
A quarter (28%) of Britons across all ages said they had no
one they would call a best friend and 15% said they had no close
friends., nearly one in ten (8%) of Brits say they simply have no friends at
. Men are most likely to not have a best friend, with 32% saying they
don’t have any best friends, compared to just 25% of women.

 Perhaps this plays a large part
in the fact that according to The
 there is a suicide almost
every hour (6507p.a.) in the UK with men three times as likely to die by
suicide than women and, the highest suicide rate is among men aged 45-49. Why
this should be so is not clear although many economists and psychologists have
observed a U-Shaped
curve in general happiness
with its low point around the mid to late 40’s
in many countries surveyed. The good news if you survive this low period, is
things look up after that generally.

How then to inoculate ourselves against the blues, rather live
like those in the Blue Zones where social connection is just part of the
culture and they seem just to ‘forget to die’!

I have written extensively in other blogs here on the role of food and
exercise. In future months I intend to write about the influence of circadian rhythms
on our sleep, food and wellness. Here I want to highlight connection and our
social animal need to be seen and loved by others throughout our lives, and
what we can do if we are not.

The only good thing to say about loneliness is that, rather like hunger
is to food, loneliness is powerful spur to address our social, connection
needs. Unlike some animals who can happily live a solitary life just mixing to
mate and then heading off to hunt and live alone, humans are quintessentially social
animals, interdependent.  GP and TV
presenter, Rangan Chatterjee, in his book The
4 Pillar Plan
points out the growing understanding of exactly why and how
social isolation is so damaging to us. When we experience social isolation, the
body thinks it’s under attack and put’s itself into a kind of emergency mode.
He goes on to remind us that

 “Levels of stress hormone cortisol tend to be higher in lonely people. There is evidence it triggers our fight-or-flight stress response, causing Chronic inflammation to increase. One major meta-analysis from 2012 that collected data from over 100,000 people found the effects of feeling socially unconnected were comparable to smoking and roughly three times more damaging to health than being obese. Another study found that feeling isolated was predictive of who’d be dead just six years later”.  

I know it’s enough to make you feel miserable straight away, as who in
our atomised modern world does not sometimes experience that modern acronym,
FOMO, the fear of missing out! So, your test today is to assess the quality and
variety of your social life.

You could do worse than go back and take that ‘assessing your social
support’ quiz I mentioned in my previous blog,
or make an objective review of your friendships, possibly especially looking to
see who, in your immediate neighbourhood you could, without too much embarrassment,
just call on, unannounced, if you needed some support. We don’t need innumerable
‘friends’ like social media, but we need quality friendships that nurture and
feed us in this mysterious way that humans are soothed by the warm, honest and supportive
real-life connection with others who see us, hear us and like us. Friends and family
who we can be frank with and mutually support.

Some years ago, I realised that in the quest to grow and learn, I had crisscrossed the world and in doing so, made many good friends. However, too many of those close encounters were rich at the time but impossible to sustain across continents. I still have good friends around the world, but I am more careful now to take time to encourage friendship closer to home. 

Remember it takes courage to step out and develop friendships, especially later in life, when those opportunities to bond of our youth, may be long gone.   Look around locally to where people go to grow. The more in-depth the experiences you can share the faster and richer the bonds of connection can be developed.

Finally In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying - Bronnie Ware outlined the key regrets she learnt from working with the dying. They were;

1.         Wishing that they had lived life true to their self and not the life others expected of them.

2.         Wishing they had not worked so much.

3.         Wishing they had had the courage to express their feelings more.

4.         Wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends more.

5.         Wishing they had allowed themselves to be happier.

Perhaps the lesson we can all learn is, don’t wait. Be brave, live that life now, don’t allow work to utterly dominate your life, make friends, express your true feelings to them, allow yourself to feel happy whenever you can, find others who need friends and befriend them.  Renew the contact with old friends who you may have lost touch with.

 Good luck