The Hidden Health Killer Nobody Is Talking About (& 6 Ways To Protect Yourself From It).

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Perhaps it’s genetics or perhaps it’s because I was homeschooled K-12 in rural Idaho, but I’m an introvert, through and through. Yes, I’m “that guy” at busy conferences who ducks away to my room to go recharge my batteries every few hours – something I can only accomplish by escaping the crowds and being entirely by myself. I thrive on long walks, multi-hour hikes and extended bike rides – usually alone. I become exhausted at networking events and cocktail parties and often slip away early to sleep, to curl up with a good book, or simply to meditate and breathe. Even at family events, I can often be found off in some quiet corner reading or strumming on my guitar or ukulele.

As a matter of fact, when I was a child, my parents had to coax me, persuade me and yes, even  threaten me with punishment, to actually get my nose out of my book and be gracious enough to ever so briefly emerge from my bedroom to say a quick hello to any guests we had at the house, after which I would subsequently rush back to my room and curl up once again with my book (I’d often read until 3 or 4am and consume several books each day and night!). A multitude of personality tests that I’ve taken, including the Quiet Revolution test and the Myers-Briggs analysis, have backed this up: I’m an introvert through and through.

But at the same time, even though I’m completely happy being a loner, I now go out of my way to ensure that (as uncomfortable or unnatural as it was initially for me) I spend plenty of time carving out a couple hours each night for a family dinner and nighttime family rituals, for connecting with old and new friends, for attending networking events, for scheduling plenty of book signings and meet-and-greets, for traveling to crowded conferences and for actively engaging in local church, community and charity events. One could even say that I’ve halfway transformed myself into a bit of a social butterfly.

So why have I begun to incorporate such a strong emphasis in my life on optimizing friends, charity, community relationships and love – aside from my desire to not be an arrogant, hard-to-approach, uncommunicative a-hole? Turns out, there is a fascinating link between love, family, social connectedness and relationships and a longer lifespan. This article will supply you with a host of practical love tips to include in your own life for a longer lifespan and better health. After all, owning an amazing body and a sharp mind can all be for naught if loneliness, sadness, inflammation, high blood pressure and accelerated aging are all occurring due to a lack of friendships, social relationships, community, charity and love – and this article will teach you exactly why and how to include these important components into your own body, mind and spirit routine.


The Problem With Loneliness

Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centered and also increases their risk of dying early by over 25%. Imagine that in industrialized countries, over 30% of folks (a percentage that is increasing at a rapid pace) are afflicted with this condition. Your income doesn’t protect you. Nor does your education, your sex or your ethnicity. Worse yet the condition is considered to be contagious, damages heart muscle, causes premature death and can affect any ordinary person walking down the street.

This condition exists, and you may already have it. It’s called, drumroll please: loneliness. Also known as social isolation, loneliness is often stigmatized, trivialized, and flat-out ignored, but is fast emerging as a worldwide public health problem – oddly enough growing hand-in-hand with so-called “social” media. Worse yet, zero physicians are trained in medical school about how to deal with this problem.

Often, we tend to associate loneliness being homeless, being depressed, being severely introverted or having poor social skills or social anxiety. But none of this is true. Both human and animal longitudinal studies have shown that the deleterious effects of loneliness are not attributable to some fringe subset of isolated individuals, but instead can affect anyone, anywhere.

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In addition to the serious emotional toll that you’d expect loneliness to be able to pile upon you, research has shown that the physical manifestations are also rather grim. Studies have linked loneliness to cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, immune system issues, pain, fatigue, depression, excessive reactivity to stress, rampant elevated cortisol levels and high blood pressure – making the effects of loneliness on par with smoking in terms of mortality risk. Unlike other chronic diseases that tend to wreak havoc more often in aging individuals, it’s actually young adults who are at the highest risk social isolation.

When you think about it, there’s a bit of an ancestral context to this whole loneliness problem. Looking at human history from an evolutionary standpoint, we see that extended isolation could mean death since your tribe wasn’t physically around to nurture you or protect you. Hence we developed social constructs to keep ourselves bound together in bands, communities, and tribes, including extended families and social connections that seem to land at around 150 people (that number is actually known today as Dunbar’s number).

The frequency and growing epidemic of loneliness is actually a bit ironic, isn’t it?

Today, we live in a hyper-connected society, and yet one of the biggest uphill battles we face in terms of our long-term health is disconnectedness and social isolation. It’s far less common than it used to be to know your neighbors by face and name, to engage in face-to-face meet-ups and conversations in connected communities not separated by an electronic barrier, and to be a child raised by an entire tribal community surround you, rather than say, a parent or two, schoolmates you see for a limited amount of time each day, Netflix and a smartphone.

But wait!

We walk around with tiny computers in our pockets that can instantly connect us with like-minded peers and people all over the globe. We should be more connected to other people than ever, right? Not quite. Even when you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, some fringe new platform that’s all the rage in Japan and any other social media outlets, you’re not actually experiencing relationships the way that you’re programmed to and the way that you’re hardwired to from an ancestral standpoint. You’re not looking into people’s eyes, you’re not touching them, you’re not feeling them and you’re not experiencing the invisible, chemical signals that human beings create and ooze from our pores when we’re around other humans – not to mention the fact that you’re missing out on the strong electromagnetic heart and brain signals I wrote about two weeks ago.

As a matter of fact, a direct relationship between smartphone prevalence and loneliness has started to amass a significant amount of research. For example, a 2015 study showed a correlation between smartphone usage and loneliness in college students. A 2017 study found a significant correlation between attachment anxiety, loneliness, depression and smartphone addiction.

This link between technology and loneliness is even more obvious when we look at smartphone usage in teenagers. An article I recently read in The Atlantic noted that as smartphone usage became more ubiquitous, a rapid and disturbing change in teenage behavior has occurred. These changes began sometime around 2012, when about 50% of Americans owned smartphones (come to think of it, I got my very first iPhone in 2013!). The group born between 1995 and 2012, a group the article dubs “iGen”, experienced a significant increase in the use of smartphones and social media. You probably don’t fall into that category if you – like me – can’t actually remember a time when you actually never even had a smartphone or even really cared about any form of social media at all.

In the iGen group, the rates of depression and suicide have significantly increased since 2011. As a matter of fact, teenagers who spend three or more hours per day on electronics have a 35% higher chance of a suicide risk factor a 27% higher risk of depression. The author of the article notes that “it’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”.

Each of the social media outlets you use each day make an implicit claim about the structure and organization of human interaction. Instead of direct interaction with others, we are interacting through something metal, something electronic and something impersonal. So the question we should be asking is this: can we actually form meaningful personal relationships through an impersonal medium?

Turns out that others have asked (and answered) this same question. Author Sherry Turkle has been studying children’s development in technological culture since the late 1970’s. In her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”, she explains how children use technology, specifically programming, as a form of self-expression. One 13-year old interviewed in the book comments, “When you program a computer, you put a little piece of your mind into the computer’s mind and you come to see yourself differently.” And you could say that in a way, this self-exploration is personal. It’s all about you.

But this kind of personal experience is lacking two things: a relationship and a prefix. When a significant amount of your time is focused on an impersonal social medium, you miss out on the interpersonal relationships that you can really only get by talking to someone face-to-face. Virtual space has become a place of self-exploration, and dealing with real people who have a knack for being unpredictable becomes difficult after spending time in a predictable simulation. Take email for example. In the workplace, it’s used to deliberately avoid social interaction and results in a significant amount depersonalization. Heck, I’m personally guilty of talking to people more like robots and less like humans when I interact with them virtually. What’s worse, when you don’t get much interpersonal interaction, your emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to be able to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others – begins to suffer. People who spend a lot of time on the internet are lonelier, have more “deviant values” (e.g. a willingness to break social norms) and lack the robust emotional and social skills characteristic of high EI.

Here’s a news flash: when it comes to social isolation and loneliness, it really isn’t about getting more friends on Facebook. It isn’t about extending your Snapchat streak of chats by yet another week. It isn’t about that popup you have set on your computer to reach out via email to some influencer on your digital Rolodex. It isn’t about developing the independent, lone-wolf, “I (plus my smartphone) can survive on my own, thank-you-very-much mentality” I personally maintained for so much of the past decade before I came face-to-face with my own growing loneliness and social isolation. It’s about going out of your way to build actual physical, flesh-and-blood relationships and a robust community of people who will come to your rescue when your basement floods, who will show up at your doorstep when you’re moving into a new house and who will cry at your funeral.

Cry at your funeral? Where’d that come from? Allow me to introduce (yet again) the writings of pastor John Ortberg… Here’s what he has to say in his book “I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me”, which is an essential handbook for developing deep, meaningful, intimate relationships:

“So, who will not be crying at my funeral?

-my critics
-people who write me to ask for favors, but whom I never hear from otherwise
-people whose approval I’m constantly trying to gain, but who always withhold it
-rich people who I think might give me something if I get to know them better (but so far it hasn’t happened)
-successful people whose success I think might rub off on me if I hang out with them more often people who see me frequently but don’t remember my name
-people who I think could make me feel important if I could just get them to notice me
-people who are cooler than I am
-famous people I’ve never actually met
-beautiful women whose pictures are on the Internet, but who don’t actually know I’m alive -people I’m afraid of
-people who are afraid of me
-all the people in the little jury box of my mind whose opinion of me matters so much, but who aren’t thinking about me at all because they’re wondering what other people are thinking about them

Who is likely to cry at my funeral?

-my children and their families
-my wife
-my brother and sister
-my good friends
-my parents, if I should go before them
-people I have genuinely and personally helped

In other words, the people with whom I have true intimacy.

The question is, Am I giving the best of my time and my life to the people who will cry at my funeral?”

I find it quite interesting that the people who make Ortberg’s “cry at my funeral” list aren’t really the same people you tend to interact with every day on social media and via e-mail, but rather those people in your life with which you tend to build true, meaningful relationships that keep you from dropping into the dark hole of loneliness. And remember: this is coming from a guy (me) who has 5,000 Facebook friends, tens of thousands of Twitter followers, nearly a hundred thousand Instagram fans, what seems like 8 billion Snapchat messages per day and has still had to deal with intense loneliness.

Anyways, grab Ortberg’s book and read it if you want to cut through all the hustle, the hurry, the business and the “I’m too busy to hang out with real, flesh-and-blood people” and to instead develop more meaningful intimacy and relationships in your life. Furthermore, the good news is that you’re about to discover how to eliminate loneliness from your life, how to defy social isolation and how to tap into one of the most powerful emotions that exists.


The Opposite Of Loneliness: Love

In his book “Blue Zones”, longevity expert and author Dan Buettner identified five geographic areas where people live the longest, statistically speaking: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.

Buettner offers an explanation, based on empirical data and first-hand observations, as to why these populations live healthier and longer lives. Turns out, the people inhabiting these “blue zones” share common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to their longevity, from life purpose to stress reduction to moderating alcohol intake and beyond. But there are six shared characteristics that are inherent among each and every Blue Zone population. They are:

-Less smoking

-A plant-rich diet

-Consistent, moderate physical activity

-Consumption of legumes

-Family engagement

And finally…drumroll please:

-Social interaction

In his book, Buettner illustrates just how important love is as the unifying factor between family, relationships, social engagement, and community, and even points out the fact that research shows strong social relationships predicts a 50% increased chance of a long, healthy life.

So what is love, exactly?

Love actually encompasses a wide variety of emotional and mental states the deepest interpersonal affection seen in the intense love between a husband and wife or a mother and child to the simplest pleasure you might experience as you take a delicious bite of cheesecake. The range of definitions of the word love means that the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse differs from the love of food. Most commonly, love simply refers to a strong feeling of attraction and attachment. Greek philosophers categorized four forms of love: familial love (“storge”), friendly love (philia), romantic love (eros), and divine love (agape). But love is also an all-encompassing virtue that incorporates kindness, compassion, and affection and perhaps most importantly, an unselfish loyal and benevolent feeling of goodwill towards another.

That’s right: having love in your life is not just about the number of your relationships, the strength of your relationships or how many people love you. Rather, it’s the attitude with which you engage in those relationships that predicts a longer and healthier life. While many think that they need to find someone to love them, research shows that the greatest benefits for health, longevity and well-being come not from receiving affection but instead from giving it to others. So perhaps the additional question Ortberg should have posed is: whose funerals will you cry at? As a matter of fact, I tell my children that if they desire true happiness in life, the very greatest thing they can accomplish towards that end is to identify their purpose in life, then to use that purpose to love God and to love others.

Of course, if meaningful love for others and social relationships increases your lifespan, then the opposite must also be true. Drawing on data from four nationally representative longitudinal samples of the U.S. population, one recent study assessed the association of social relationships such as social integration, social support and social strain with measured biomarkers of physical health like C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker), systolic and diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference and body mass index within the life stages of adolescence, young, middle and late adulthood. The researchers discovered that a higher degree of social integration was associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation in a dose-response manner, in both early and later life. At the same time, lack of social connections was associated with vastly elevated health risks.

Social isolation increased the risk of inflammation by the same magnitude as physical inactivity in adolescence, and the effects of social isolation on hypertension exceeded that of clinical risk factors such as diabetes in old age. This is likely because the same genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation. While people with low social connection have higher levels of inflammation, individuals who live a “eudaimonic” lifestyle, defined as a life rich in compassion, altruism (selfless care for others) and a sense of purpose, have surprisingly lower levels of inflammation.

That altruism piece is pretty important too. Take, for example, a study done by Stephanie Brown at the Stony Brook University Medical Center. Those in the study who engaged in helping others and supporting others ended up living longer lives. This was not the case for people who were simply recipients of care and support. Another study supports and extends the findings above, demonstrating that volunteerism predicts a longer life. Interestingly, this second study found that volunteerism lengthened lifespan only when it was performed for purely selfless reasons. When you sincerely wish to help others, you will reap the benefits thereof, so it turns out you cannot deceive your own body about your true intentions for helping others.

This means that while it’s important that you’re aware that loving others and having lots of love in your life is one of the most potent ways to enhance your wellness and longevity, you shouldn’t be going out of your way to experience love so that you can, say, decrease inflammatory cytokines or extend the length of your telomeres. Instead, you should go out of your way to experience love because you actually, genuinely care for your fellow man and fellow woman, because you relish the idea of hanging out with your family and because being with other human beings makes you happy.

If you’re anything like me, it may take a lot of time, patience and learning to bring yourself to the point where you can shove out of  the back of your mind the idea that you’re attending a family reunion because you care about family and not because you heard it could be good for your physiology, but the more you love others, the more it seems to create a positive cycle in which you love others just because that’s what you do not because that’s what you should do. Make sense?

Of course, it’s tough to love others if you’re not actually around others. I would know. I used to be the guy at conferences who would stand in the back of the lunchroom with a blank stare on my face, completely paralyzed by the prospect of approaching a table of gabbing attendees to ask for a seat, the student who sat alone in the corner of the university cafeteria with my nose buried in a newspaper and the fellow who upon first settling into my airplane seat would don my noise-blocking headphones and avoid all eye contact with anyone who seemed to threaten me with an impending conversation.

Then I read a book by author Keith Ferrazzi entitled “Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time”. Ferrazzi has a circle of contacts that numbers in the thousands, a circle he’s cultivated for years (admittedly, this seems to rub against the concept of Dunbar’s number) and a circle that he has built based on what he says is an incredibly important aspect of any relationship: generosity. His approach to never eating alone integrates networking, behavior, intuition, and power, but also emotion, reciprocity and trust, all integral parts of workplace and personal relationships.

Ultimately, I’d sum up his book by saying that it encourages you to find people, sit down at a table with them, and smother them with love by being truly and genuinely interested in them, not striving to “get anything” out of getting to know them, and offering up as much helpful advice as you can give them based on your specific areas of knowledge and expertise. When I walk into a group of people, whether it’s a cocktail party, a bar or a conference lunch, this is now my modus operandi. Of course, the book goes into far more detail about how to “never eat alone”, and I’d highly recommend you add it to your recommended reading list.

Now, it shouldn’t be ignored that Ferrazzi’s approach actually capitalizes on the connectivity provided by social media and the internet. He described that LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and beyond are all powerful tools when used correctly and in the right dose. In Ferrazzi’s words, “Today’s kids… their social-media-driven upbringing will make them savants in some areas of relationship building, and idiots in others…” In a nutshell, social media outlets shouldn’t be your primary sources of interaction, but should instead be places where you sync up with the global hive and points from which you maintain your connections, friendships and relationships, which are based on personal and reciprocal interaction and trust and ideally actual flesh-and-blood meetups, dinner parties, social events and other inherently human activities that allow for everything from eye contact to smelling someone’s unique bacterial scent to sensing pheromone release.

Now don’t get me wrong: you do not need to be an extroverted social butterfly who spends every evening hour of each weekday hopping from a baseball game to a charity event to a plant foraging meetup to a bridge club to a dinner party to reap these benefits. A number of studies have shown that your own internal subjective sense of connection, compassion or love suffice to protect your health, happiness and well-being. This means that rather than dropping everything to go attend every cocktail party and golf game you’re invited to, it’s OK instead simply have a few close friends you can confide in, a daily gratitude practice in which you identify one person you can pray for, help or serve that day and a weekly hobby or event in which you’re around a just a few people who you love and who love you.

Of course, I’m not going to just leave you with that. Instead, I have a few practical tips up my sleeve that have really enhanced my own ability to be able to surround myself with more love and to build social engagement and a sense of community.


6 Ways To Enhance Your Life & Longevity With Love

#1: Volunteer

Volunteering is a win-win for all parties involved. Those who receive your help will be grateful, and you’ll fill your own life with more empathy, sympathy and love. Consider the following as ways you can start volunteering:

-Care for your parents. We live in a culture in which our parents and the elderly are often relegated to nursing home and hospice. But in an ideal community, you’d sacrifice your time, space and money to bring your parent into your own home, the same as they did for you when you were a baby. Even if they’re not living with you but they instead live close to you, you can drop by for coffee on a Saturday morning, mow their yard or accompany them on a shopping trip.

-Help a local school. Educators are overworked and stressed, while the children at many institutions need role models and people who care about their lives and behavior. You can volunteer to read stories to elementary school students, monitor outdoor activities, chaperone field trips or even work with a local church or other charitable organization to ensure that poor children are able to get food on the weekends. In our community, there is a program called “Bite2Go”, and each week a volunteer from my church drops off boxes of food at the school.

-Visit a nursing home to sing or to visit. As I alluded to above, many nursing homes are turned simply dumping grounds for older people whose families are gone or are unavailable, and many residents are desperate for conversation and connections with outside individuals. Pick up the phone and call a local home, asking if you can come by and play guitar or piano, sing, help cook, take folks on walks or simply visit. I often visit local nursing homes with my twin boys to sing and play guitar, and when I grew up, homes would often allow myself and my siblings, along with our parents, to take nursing home residents to local venues such as the fair or the symphony. Similarly, hospitals also have many volunteer opportunities that include everything from sitting with patients to working with children to food service and pushing wheelchairs.

-Coach a sport. Many kids don’t get the opportunity to participate in sports because there aren’t enough coaches or assistants. Even if you’re not a “pro” in the sport for which you choose to help, you can volunteer to coach for your own child’s team or any local youth sports team. I’ve personally done this for Valley Boys & Girls Club basketball, my local University sports camp programs and my twin boys’ sports teams.

-Tutor. From children to adults, there are robust opportunities in most communities to tutor students, teach literacy, cooking, sewing or home repairs to adults, instruct English and even help with classes on computers and other skills (the latter is especially needed and appreciated in the senior community).

-Deliver meals. I grew up in a family that delivered “Meals on Wheels” to the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly and the poor each week. Many communities have programs like this, and some even allow you to help with the meal prep.

-Become a docent. A what? A docent is a trained guide who leads visitors through facilities such as museums, art galleries, presidential libraries, aquariums, zoos, and universities. Your docent training is usually provided for free by these institutions.

-Serve your own neighborhood. In our modern era of digital connections, it’s now all-too-common for neighbors not to know one another (can you name all your neighbors), since you can easily join a Facebook group that contains avatars with far more similar interests than the person who lives next door to you. But neighborhood barbecues and beautification projects, helping your neighbor mow or shovel snow, and participation in a neighborhood organization builds a strong sense of local community.

#2: Dinner Parties

My friend Jayson Gaignard, author of the book “Mastermind Dinners: Build Lifelong Relationships by Connecting Experts, Influencers, and Linchpins” has built his entire career around connecting people and networks via hosting what he called “Mastermind Dinners”. Of course, Keith Ferrazzi’s classic networking book I mentioned earlier highlights the importance of convening people over food, but Jayson has truly perfected the process. He typically organizes dinners of eight to sixteen people in various major cities across the US and Canada (although he recommends six for the most intimate “sweet spot” if you really want people to get to know one another) and encourages that if we do the same, we should think carefully about who we invite to these meals and look for uncommon commonalities that make it more likely the guests will resonate with one another.

The book goes into far more detail, and I’d highly recommend you give it a read, but ultimately, a huge amount of community-building power lies in the simple act of throwing a dinner about once a month for the purpose of reconnecting old ties, connecting people who should know each other and connecting with people who you’ve meant to connect with for a long time.

#3: Meetups

One way to meet new people, to make friends or practice your social skills, is through “Meetups”, which are typically organized over the internet, but result in flesh-and-blood people being brought together for everything from hiking to tennis to business networking and beyond. At the moment the most popular and well-known site for this is Meetup.com, a website on which you can create or join groups and events. It’s free to join groups and go to events but costs money if you want to form one yourself.

Reddit.com is another decent place to find meetups for people located in your city, as are a growing number of apps that include Skout, Excuses to Meet, Hey! Vina, and there’s even one for you and your pooch called Meet My Dog. I’ve been a member of plant foraging meetup (if we all die of mushroom poisoning, at least we die together) and a singer-songwriter meetup. Even if you go to a meetup just one time, you’re still likely to connect with at least one similarly interested person who winds up becoming a friend.

#4: Church

When it comes to forming deep, personal, meaningful relationships with like-minded individuals who share a belief in the importance of characteristics such as peace, love, joy, purpose and belief in a higher power, there’s not a more likely place than a church to fit that need and to also provide you with an avenue to further explore the benefits of caring for your spirit. Granted, I’ll admit that the modern church has a scarred and sometimes sordid past of extreme judgmentalism and abuse, but I think you’ll find that at your local, neighborhood place of worship you’re more likely to find a great deal of love and care from others than you are a dogmatic or socially intolerable scenario.

Even though I’m a Christian, as an introvert I personally struggle with attending church. Frankly, I’d rather be wandering through the forest on an awe-inspiring hike while listening to a sermon or speaking with God. But I’ve also discovered that I can’t just navigate through life as a spiritual lone wolf without the encouragement, collective worship, volunteer opportunities and church community that is defined by the Greek word “Koinonia” which literally translated means communion, joint participation and the state of uplifting fellowship and unity that can and should exist within a church. There’s even a growing body of evidence that demonstrates both physical and psychological benefits of singing in a choir (admittedly there are many choirs and singing groups you can join outside of a church, but having a large organized group of people to sing with is just one more benefit of being in a church).

#5: Renewing Forsaken Family Relationships

A recent research project at the UK’s University of Cambridge called “Stand Alone”, showed that family estrangements that arise from partner choices, addiction, illness, inheritance arguments and divorce are incredibly common, with estrangement from fathers being the most common and tending to last an average of almost eight years. Estrangements between brothers last 7.7 years, sisters around 7.4 years and mothers at 5.5 years. That’s a large chunk of time to, as the Bible verse says, “allow the sun to go down on your anger”, and the stress, tension and emotional pain that accompanies these estrangements are definitely not a healthy state of vibrational energy at which to exist.

I’ve certainly had my own fair share of family conflicts: bitterness against my father for not being more present and for divorcing my mother, resent against my mother for being overprotective during my childhood, judgement against my sister for marrying someone I initially thought was “the wrong guy”, frustration towards my brothers for not being more responsible with their lives and families – the list goes on and on. I’ll admit that it even feels therapeutic to tell you about these personal issues of mine, and I’ll admit this also: I’m not perfect and I’m still working on mending each of those relationships.

Interestingly, the Australian documentary “Look Me In The Eye”, actually explored what happens when real families who are estranged make attempts to reconnect with each other and restore broken relationships. It shows that estranged family members often have an uneasy relationship with change, find change to be difficult and therefore find that resolving estrangement feels out of their control. This is certainly the case with me: I’m a creature of habit who often becomes frustrated about and gives up on what seems to be outside my control. So how can you re-establish and mend broken family relationships? Here are a few tips:

-Reach out to the family member (and note that these same strategies should be applied to any broken relationship in your life – not just family members). Nothing is likely to happen unless you make that initial contact. Chances are high that multiple attempts will be necessary, and chances are also high that you’ll be more successful picking up the phone or traveling to resolve issues face-to-face, vs. communicating via often impersonal emails and emoticons.

-Interestingly, and related to the last tip above, the method of re-connection they used in the documentary Look Me In The Eye was direct eye contact, which was based on neuroscience research showing that direct eye contact significantly helps people to communicate in difficult circumstances. So there’s yet another reason to be present personally when resolving conflicts.

-Communicate clearly. Acknowledge the issues that are unresolved by naming them (e.g. “I’ve been angry with you for the past four years since you married Gwyneth, who I felt really wasn’t the right person for you and messed up your life). Lay all the cards out on the table.

-Consider family counseling with a pastor, counselor or psychiatry professional, especially if complex, thorny and unresolved issues threaten to remain or if trying to solve the issue yourself doesn’t seem to be producing any progress.

-Understand that it may take significant time, effort sacrifice and, well, love to rebuild trust and respect.

#6: Reclaim Real Conversation

During a late-night-TV interview with Conan O’ Brian, Louis C.K., (as controversial as the comedian is), said this about children communicating via the internet and smartphones:

“And they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build the empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, “you’re fat,” and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, “oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.” But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write “you’re fat,” then they just go, “mmm, that was fun, I like that.”

Louis makes a good point: not only are digital conversations less empathetic, most likely due in large part to the loss of eye contact and other important physical elements of human interaction you learned earlier in this article, but it’s also easier to hide your true emotions behind the invisibility of internet interaction, feel less guilty or less hesitant about trolling or making offensive remarks, and to engage in fake, inauthentic conversation.

The opposite of this would be what author Sherry Turkle in her book “Reclaiming Conversation” would refer to as real, authentic, personal conversation.

In her book, Sherry notes that it’s all too common for the dinner table to fall silent as children compete with phones for their parents’ attention, for you to not say a peep to the person sitting next to you on the airplane because both of you are sucked into the screen and for two phones to be slapped on the center of the table in between spouses or lovers on a date. Heck, I’ve personally even developed the skill to be able to text message one person while conversing with and looking into the eyes of another person – an extreme example of being disconnected and halfway connected all at once.

Sherry points out that the case for conversation begins with conversations of solitude and self-reflection. They are endangered: these days, always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers.

Back to Louis C.K.’s interview with Conan O’ Brian. Louis notes our propensity to grab our phones at any given time when we begin to feel loneliness creep in on us, including while in our vehicles:

“Just that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. You know it’s down there. And sometimes when things clear away you are not watching it, you are in your car and you start going “oh, no here comes that I’m alone like it starts to visit on you”. You know, just the sadness…Life is tremendously sad just by being in it, and so you’re driving and then you go ah-ah-ah that’s why we text and drive. I look around pretty much 100% of people driving are texting. And they are killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars.”

But as you’ve already discovered, this quest to be constantly connected is increasing, not decreasing loneliness (and also making the average highway a very dangerous place to be!) because technology interaction simply can’t replace real, flesh-and-blood, face-to-face interaction. This form of real conversation builds empathy, friendship, love, learning and productivity, and the book Reclaiming Conversation argues that the most human and humanizing thing that we can do is to engage in person-to-person conversation.

How? Here are a few tips, particularly focused around mealtimes, which I consider to be one of the best ways to engage meaningfully and the best times to “reclaim” conversation (much to the chagrin of frequent 5 day water fasting enthusiasts!).

-Reconfigure Your Phone: If your email, text messages and social media apps ping you every time a notification rolls in, you’ve not only lost control of your day, but also the ability to be able to engage in real conversation without being distracted. Your routine and your conversations now depend not on your schedule, but on whatever’s happening on your phone. But as you no doubt know, Android, iOS and individual apps all have settings to stem the flow of alerts, buzzes and rings. Every single notification on my phone is off, my phone is in silent mode and if I’m on a date or having dinner with the family, the phone is in airplane mode or Do Not Disturb mode. There is absolutely no need for you to be ripped away from a deep, meaningful conversation every time a Facebook friend tags you in a post. In extreme cases of smartphone addiction and lack of self-control, you can even install addiction-breaking apps such as AppDetox, which lets you set limits on the time you spend inside individual apps; Flipd, which focuses on blocking access to certain apps for set periods of time; Onward, which allows you to track how often you use your phone and individual apps, set up rules for limiting phone use, and even have an expert give you personalized coaching to help break your tech addiction; and Forest (my favorite), which takes a slightly different approach by gamifying the process of easing you away from phone distractions. In Forest, you plant a seed, which eventually grows into a tree as long as you don’t navigate away from the app. If you ditch Forest during the growth period to check Facebook or surf Safari, your tree will die. Admittedly, this sounds gimmicky, but is actually a very effective and dare-I-say meditative way of avoiding the temptations rife within your phone.

-Play Table Topics: Whether I’m on a date with my wife or at home with my family, a potent and fun way to completely forget the existence of my phone is to play a game of “Table Topics”, also known as “Dinner Conversations”, in which each person at the table asks a question from an official Table Topics card game, a Table Topics app (ironic, but can be used with the phone in airplane mode) or a printed list of Table Topics that include questions such as “If you could have any superhero sitting here at dinner with us, who would you choose and why?” or “What was the scariest decision you made in the past year?” or “If your house were on fire and you could put three objects in a backpack before you rushed out, what would you choose and why?”. You get the idea. It may seem silly that you’d need your conversation topics chosen for you to engage in “real conversation”, but I and my family have spent many valuable minutes at dinner laughing and learning more about one another with this approach, and often the questions rabbit-hole into even deeper conversations.

-Share Gratitude Journals: On a website that I created for injecting more gratitude into your life, you can discover the power of gratitude and the three most important questions you can journal each morning. At our house, we bring our journals to the dinner table and discuss what we wrote. When a family of four, or even a group of two, embark upon a conversation about what they are grateful for, what they discovered in the morning’s reading and who they helped, prayed for or served that day, it can lead to deep and meaningful conversation that can often last the entire dinner.

-Taste the Food: Allow me to point out painfully obvious fact: when you’re at a meal you are eating – often filling your face with wonderful and interesting molecules that are highly conducive to conversation. So why not share your opinions of a meal’s taste, texture or presentation? Why not discuss the culinary expertise put into the food (which can work when at a fancy restaurant, but may not be so handy when eating Aunt Edna’s macaroni-and-cheese)? Why not sip the wine, flavor-taste the salt or try a set of new spices and discuss what your brain experiences? Just last night at our house, my wife, twin boys and I spent nearly twenty minutes tasting and trying three different bottles of olive oil from our olive oil club and – similar to a wine tasting – commenting on the notes, the flavors, the aromas and the subtle details of each oil, and we liked best about it. The bonus of this strategy? You tend to eat less and become fuller faster because you’re actually savoring your food!

And finally, should all else fail, you can rely upon Jayson Gaignard’s trick that he reveals at just about every one of his Mastermind Dinners I’ve attended: all phones get piled up onto the middle of the table in airplane mode or off, and the first person to reach for their device pays for dinner.


Summary

Ultimately, owning an amazing body and a sharp mind many of us constantly strive for can all be for naught if loneliness, sadness, inflammation, high blood pressure and accelerated aging are all occurring due to a lack of friendships, social relationships, community, charity and love in your life. But you’re now equipped to include these important components into your own body, mind and spirit routine.

Finally, be sure to consider reading the following books within the next year:

Never Eat Alone
Reclaiming Conversation
Mastermind Dinners
I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me
The Power of Introverts (if you are indeed introverted or suspect you are)

Finally, I have a quick challenge for you based on what you’ve learned in this article: this week, take a loved one on a date, an adventure, a walk or just a quick meal or chat, but leave your phone behind. Not “off” in your pocket, but truly forsaken back at home or your office. Observe how this changes the conversation or experience, and feel free to leave your experience notes below.

Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for me about loneliness, love and deeper connection? Your own tips to add? Leave your comments below and I will reply!

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7 thoughts on “The Hidden Health Killer Nobody Is Talking About (& 6 Ways To Protect Yourself From It).

  1. Rou says:

    I loved reading this well researched and very well structured and presented essay. I’m looking into the further reading you suggested and I am going to listen to your podcast next. Very glad to have come across your instagram account, which led me here. Thank you!

  2. Emily van der Waals says:

    Hi Ben,

    As an expat the realities of loneliness are often thrown in to sharp focus and I have experienced a number of health issues which when I review your article are probably exacerbated by the loneliness I have and continue to experience. Your article has really made me think. Thank you. My health is the most important thing to me in the world. I need to make changes.

  3. Deb says:

    Ben,
    The past two articles you wrote if taken to heart and put into practice by others would be life-altering in the right way. I am in gratitude for your wealth of knowledge and how you to share it with the world, with the incredible people you have brought to the podcast, and for your love of others.
    I will be one of those people you do not know, who you have impacted with your purpose in life and therefore, who will cry at your funeral.

  4. Jack says:

    Good word, Ben. Love your transparency and thoughtfulness.

  5. Kim says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes!! Put the electronics down. Converse with others. Look at their faces when interacting. Smile at people you don’t know. Say hello to those you encounter in public. Reach out because there are people craving connection-just like you.

  6. Cal says:

    “A number of studies have shown that your own internal subjective sense of connection, compassion or love suffice to protect your health, happiness and well-being”.

    A good point often overlooked by other articles on this subject.

    I appreciate your thoroughness!

    1. Joel says:

      Very good point

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