Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Biological Key to a Long, Healthy, and Rewarding Life

If you’re interested in living a long, healthy, and rewarding life, take note of this: There is a direct correlation between how long and how well you will live and the quality of your connection to other people. The Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard, the longest running study on health, found that the more friends people have, the less likely they will become physically impaired as they age, and the more likely they will be leading happy, successful lives.

A study in Science Magazine reported that the health risk associated with neglecting our social relationships is equal to cigarette smoking, elevated blood pressure and blood lipids, [and] obesity. Social isolation also increases emotional reactivity to stress dumping toxic stress hormones into our system that, when chronic, damage our heart, impair our immune system, alter our DNA, predispose us to depression, and prematurely age us. And, the greater the stress the greater the likelihood of marital problems and family dysfunction.

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The sense of belonging that positive relationships instill has a great deal to do with how we thrive and succeed. Yet many of us don’t get the biological and psychological importance of our connection to one another. Surveys show we are becoming more and more disengaged from friends and family, and we don’t join clubs, volunteer, or interact with neighbors as much as previous generations.

Our stressful careers have taken over to the point that people routinely miss family events, and we tend to think we’re too busy, too stressed, or too tired to spend time with a friend, forgetting the way friendship revitalizes us. Our friends actually have an even bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.

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It would do you enormous good if you took this moment to reflect on a friend or family member who you’ve been meaning to connect with, and followed through in doing so. Calendar it and hold yourself accountable to following through. Make this as important to your health as going to the gym or eating healthy foods or not smoking… because it is that important.

Here’s the story that led science to come to this conclusion.

The first study to reveal the biological connection between interpersonal connection and health was the Roseto Study. It has come to be called the Roseto Effect. Fifty years ago, medical researchers were stumped by a bewildering statistic in Roseto, Pennsylvania, a village populated mostly by descendants of Italian immigrants. The local health officer discovered that Rosetans were nearly immune to the number-one cause of death in America–heart disease. Cardiac mortality rises with age, but not in Roseto. It dropped to near zero for men aged fifty-five to sixty-four.

Moreover, the local death rate for men over sixty-five was half the national average. This made no medical sense, given that most of the men smoked, drank lots of wine, ate a high-fat diet, and made their living at backbreaking work in a rock quarry.

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A team of medical researchers from Oklahoma University descended on the village to try to find out why. They pulled death certificates, performed physical exams, and conducted extensive interviews with villagers. But they could find no biological, genetic, environmental, or any other physical reason to explain the people’s resistance to heart disease–until one of the researchers stumbled across two telling social factor.

  • First, the crime rate in the village was zero.
  • Second, between 1945-1966 none of the Italian families were on public welfare, even though a number of families fell below the poverty line.

When researchers dug deeper, they found that the community took care of their poor. They also found that family structure in Roseto was close-knit. Nearly all the homes contained three generations, and elders were held in high regard. Mealtimes were much more than a matter of eating; they were family time. Community events were also common in Roseto. In warm weather, neighbors took evening strolls and dropped in to visit one another.

Sociologist John Bruhn of the University of Texas said that Rosetans “radiated a kind of joyous team spirit as they celebrated religious festivals and family landmarks. Their social focus was on the family . . .”

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The researchers finally concluded that the village’s immunity to heart disease and an early grave was the result of the strong sense of belonging that people felt.

But sadly, the effect didn’t last. The children of Roseto went off to college in pursuit of the American dream, and after graduation most of them moved to the big city, where the high-paying jobs were. As a result, the community gradually lost its cohesion, and in 1971 the village recorded its first death of a person under the age of forty-five from coronary disease. It went downhill from there.

In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (p. 107) Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University relates a story about a boy who was severely abused, emotionally and physically. After he became a ward of the court, it was discovered that he had zero growth hormones in his bloodstream. Chronic stress had completely shut down his growth system, threatening his life. He was hospitalized but didn’t improve.

During his hospital stay, he developed a close relationship with one of the nurses, undoubtedly the first loving relationship he had ever experienced. To everyone’s amazement, his growth hormone levels zoomed back to normal. But no one could explain it at first.

The medical staff got its first clue when his friend the nurse went on vacation. As soon as she was gone, the boy’s blood level dropped back to zero. The second clue came when the nurse returned from vacation and his blood level shot up again.

Think about it. The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world.

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Scores of other studies have corroborated the Roseto Effect. In a recent review of 148 separate studies involving a combined 308,849 participants, it was found that people who cultivate strong relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers improve their odds of survival by 50 percent. More and more, the evidence shows that who we become is not determined by genes alone. Love has a lot to do with turning up the intensity in genes that strengthen us and turning down genes that weaken us.

So, how do you reconnect and stay connected? The formula for sustaining positive relationships is simple but not always easy. Here it is:

Rx for Connection 570 Smaller wth heart copyIt means listening better, with empathy. It’s judging less and accepting people exactly as they are, and it requires a willingness to forgive. No relationship can last long without forgiveness. It also means asking yourself, Do I want to be right or do I want to be connected, when you’re about to dig in your heels during an argument with a loved one.

 

Why Dreams Don’t Come True

2016-02-10-1455135173-7716651-RobertoWeigandwithattributecopy.jpgfrom the Huffington Post article

Shame sucks the life out of your dreams and aspirations. It punishes you for getting something wrong and drains the joy out of your triumphs. Shame is why you lose faith in yourself and end up thinking you’re not good enough and never will be. It can reach the point where you’re not even sure about your strengths and talent. Eventually, its false voice that says You’re not good enough and never will be becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy preventing your dreams from coming true.

How do we end up this way?

Shame is largely the result of criticisms and judgments inflicted by parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and bosses, some of who were well meaning, some not, that steadily programmed your brain for shame reactions. But don’t fret, those faulty neural circuits can be pruned back so that they no longer run your life. I’ll tell you how in a moment, but first let’s briefly look at the problem.

Freud defined shame as the fear of losing people’s respect, which leads to being controlled by the fear of what others think of you. “[It’s] the fear of disconnection,” says Dr. Brené Brown, “of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging.”

It’s extremely stressful. Research at the University of California found that “stress caused by how others view you is extremely powerful, as much or more so than [that] caused from . . . working too hard.” Researchers found that “acute threats to our social self increase stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokine activity occurring in concert with shame.” That adds-up to poor brain function and disease.

Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, found that there are two shame-based sentences that people tell themselves.

(1) The first sentence is I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration, but if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance.

(2) The second sentence is This mistake I made . . . This event that turned out badly . . . This thing I got wrong . . . This way I behaved . . . it means that there’s something wrong with me. This is guilt or frustration becoming shame. It has us saying to ourselves I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not worthy enough; all of which calcify into the belief that I deserve whatever punishment is coming. And it’s this sentence – this belief – that does the damage.”

Shame is psychologically painful, which makes us afraid to make a mistake, more because of the emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves than for anything the world might do to us. Eventually, a shame-based mind represses its mistakes to avoid feeling bad, preventing the possibility of learning from a mistake, which only increases the likelihood of repeating the blunder. We become afraid to take risks, which limits our growth.

The problem with repression is that it isn’t selective. We can’t numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and this lessens our sense of self. We form facades and pretenses to compensate, which of course makes us feel even more inauthentic. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. Research shows that people struggle at naming a few good points about themselves, but easily fill two pages of things they perceive as faults.

The cure is found in the words of Carl Rogers, arguably one of America’s greatest psychologists. Rogers said, “What you are is good enough if you would only be it openly.” Does that sound too simple and too small to effect something as large as shame.

Becoming good enough begins with the simple step of accepting yourself exactly as you are, which is not easy, at least at first. It entails closing the gap between “I am” and “I should be;” which is the gap between the authentic you that’s true and realizable, and the ideal self that’s illusion. The ideal self is the image of the person you think you should be that is always out of reach, imposing an unrealistic standard you can never meet. It becomes a measuring stick that says you’re failing in some way, even when you’re doing well.

Transcending the ideal self begins with awareness. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses your ideal self fabricates, so you can let them go. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses, so you can let them go. It’s understanding that it doesn’t help to act one way on the outside when you actually feel another way inside. It doesn’t help to pretend to know the answer when you don’t. It’s accepting that you make mistakes, that you don’t always function in the best way or always achieve the best result. No one does. It’s learning that the more you’re able to experience all of your feelings, the less you’re afraid of any of your feelings, including shame.

Ironically, the courage to be imperfect quiets the shaming voice in your head, and opens the way to a greater sense of wholeness, in which your experience gradually becomes your authority and your guide. Shame no longer negates the better angels of your nature, mistakes no longer stop you, and other people’s judgments no longer control you. Your way is now cleared.