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

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

As 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.

I 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.

I 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.

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

That 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.

As 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.

Loneliness 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 all. 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 Samaritans  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