There is an actual, physical chunk of brain that runs your emotions called the limbic brain. You can trace its development back a hundred million years. You can see it on an MRI. Every second you spend with other people, your limbic brain is tuning in to them, being changed by their moods, and changing theirs in turn. It's a constant, life-affirming limbic dance.
Experimental psychologists have known for decades that we share moods. If you don't believe me, just think of the people who make you feel better simply by walking into a room. These sorts of interactions feel so good (directly and unconsciously) that we would wither away without them. This is why you should never underrate the emotional side of your life.
Women are better than men at keeping the limbic dance going by working to ensure that families stay connected as the years go by and by building lasting friendships and deep connections from the many different aspects of their lives. High school and college friends, friends from work, friends from raising children together, from neighbourhood committees, from shared vacations -- sure, some of these bonds and friendships fall away as part of the natural cycle of growing and changing, but most women find new friendships to replace them. Women who don't find close friendships, who have trouble keeping up connections, need to make an effort to change those patterns.
Building a Community
Our society -- with its emphasis on the traditional family structure and the workplace as centres of social togetherness -- doesn't help matters. People who lack either of those have to work doubly hard. But the consequences of not making connections are so devastating that you cannot allow yourself to retreat into isolation. The stakes are too high. A study of more than 4,000 women and men in Alameda County, California, showed a direct link between the size of one's social circle and survival, with larger circles bringing ever-greater longevity. Women with fewer than six regular contacts outside the house had significantly higher rates of blocked coronary arteries, were more likely to be obese and have diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, and were two and a half times more likely to die over the course of the study than those with an extensive social network.
Having either a good marriage or just one close friend cuts the risk of mortality by a third, and the benefit increases the more your circle broadens. It's reassuring to note that both quality and quantity count. Some people have a few close friends or family members, while others have a broad network of involvement with their community. Either works well, though it's best to have both.
Optimism is an extraordinary limbic resource and is available to everyone because it's a learned skill. You can decide to be optimistic with remarkable success. Not Pollyanna optimistic, but glass-half-full optimistic, and it's worth the effort. Women who are optimistic about motherhood before pregnancy have a much lower risk of postpartum depression. Optimistic women have lower mortality rates from cancer and heart disease. It seems to help to approach illness with a positive, optimistic attitude, which may lower blood pressure and improve immune function. You recover from bypass surgery faster and better, you get out of bed sooner after back surgery, and you go back to work and regular exercise sooner. Anger doubles your risk of heart disease. But perceiving your work as satisfying cuts your risk of heart disease in half.
Finding Satisfaction in Life
Generations ago, extended families provided rich, lifelong limbic safety nets and connections to the group. In the days before TV, telephones, electric lights, and convenience stores, this wasn't a choice. There was nothing to do but be within a group. The great gift of traditional societies was that you were a necessary part of the community your whole life. Okinawans, a group of people living on an island off the coast of Japan, have the greatest documented longevity of any population on earth, and in their culture older people are integral parts of the community until they draw their last breath. At 90, or 100, they are respected for their life experience and are relevant to the group.
There are other pathways to connectedness, too, such as spirituality. A search for meaning is too profound and personal for facile advice giving, but we do know that for limbic reasons alone you should be on the journey. The growing number of reasonably well-done studies on spirituality point to its importance in our lives for both mental and physical health. Many people who search for meaning in their lives and their experience via religion or spirituality survive loss, cancer, and heart disease better and have healthier immune chemistry and lower risks of stroke and Alzheimer's disease than those who do not.
Every single human being on the planet craves limbic connections. We just need to head out the door to build them. The tide of social atrophy -- of limbic decay -- is not that strong. It's just remorselessly steady. The ultimate message is swim against the tide, every day. If you work at it steadily, it is almost impossible to fail.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, March 2006.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006