Since Nerem’s study, four decades of population research has shown that our social world is the major determinate of our health. Meanwhile, good medical care likely only accounts for 10 to 20% of our overall health status. As I describe in my book, The Rabbit Effect, the vast majority of our health is determined by how we are treated in our day-to-day lives at home, in relationships, in workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and the broader community.
And it comes down to kindness and positive connections with others.
Kindness influences health and aging on a microscopic cellular level. For example, welcome physical contact, like a supportive hug from a loved one, releases a cascade of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and serotonin. It also protects against infections. One study exposed 400 healthy volunteers to the cold virus and found those who received daily hugs were 32% less likely to get sick. Even those who got sick, but received hugs, didn’t get as sick for as long.
Increasing research shows repeated kindness, such as the TLC a parent offers a child, alters gene expression through a process known as epigenetics. In other words, the DNA itself doesn’t change, but how the genetic code is translated does. In this way, supportive relationships and environments help people live longer and better.
Exciting advances in genetics show that the protective DNA caps called telomeres extend or shorten in response to supportive or stressful relationships and environments. Longer telomere buffers are associated with longer life span and reduced incidence of disease.
Positive relationships buffer stress, which improves immune functioning, blood pressure, mood, and recovery after injury. In fact, an 80-year longitudinal Harvard Study of adult development found that the biggest predictor of a long healthy life wasn’t money, fame, intelligence, or even genes—it was the strength of participants’ relationships. Another study that followed 1,138 healthy older adults over time found social activity in itself (controlling for other factors) appears protective for brain functioning and lowered dementia risk by as much as 70%.
Just as positive relationships reduce cortisol, inflammation, and pain, we know that chronic loneliness is a significant risk factor for illness. It increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and premature death and is as significant a risk factor to health as well-established risk factors such as smoking, alcoholism, high blood pressure, or obesity.
The exciting news is that every day each of us has the opportunity to increase kindness and connection in all areas of our lives.