Why your friends are more important than you know

heath, social, people, healthMy husband was at a conference recently about communications and what people really want to know about (when information is instantaneous in our digital age). He works in public relations – which means he’s good at talking his way out of unloading the dishwasher and putting away the laundry because of other “pressing” matters, and we are evenly matched when it comes to games of Scrabble.

The interesting thing, as we become more reliant on our high-tech methods of communicating, dating, learning, doing chores (anyone tried that floor vacuuming robot yet?) and so on, the more we yearn for human touch and face-to-face interaction. We’re creating all these sci-fi tools to live by, and modified foods to eat, to better our way of life and our health. But at what cost?


One of the conference speakers was from Google, king of the internet and all things clickable. She was wearing the Google Glass for her presentation, the newfangled wearable computer that looks like custom spectacles out of a Star Trek episode. You can’t wear them over top of your regular glasses though, but you can take a photo, record a video, read your email and check the internet, leveraging Google services like searches, maps, language instruction and so on. You tilt your head back to turn them on!

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The idea, the Google rep explained, is that technology is moving toward things that we wear that seamlessly fit into our lives. Coming soon, our watches will be used as phones, information and entertainment screens.

Another speaker at the conference said people are most interested in personable experiences that they can relate to when it comes to gathering information. When they can look up any fact on the internet and get the answer in mere seconds, they want to hear the story behind the facts. So in the case of the winter storm and lengthy power outage in the Toronto area in Canada this Christmas, people were interested in the personal dramas.

They wanted to hear about what the power crews were doing. They weren’t interested in perfection, the quick fix or how the emergency call center failed, they wanted to know what others in the same boat were doing to keep warm and fed. They wanted to hear about how power workers had forgone their holiday vacations with their families to tackle the ice, downed trees and power lines, and help people out.

Despite all this impressive technology and ease of living, we seem to be moving away from the things we really need.

Like making a special meal for our spouse or friend, just because, and lingering over coffee for more conversation (good conversation is like chicken soup for the soul). It’s those simple things in life, the things we take for granted like a good friendly chat, that bring us the most benefit.

Like more organized activities for kids to get them active and off the couch. Obesity and related health issues in youngsters are on the rise and we need to pull them away from the isolation of video games and put them back into social clubs and sports.

We need to reach out to seniors who live alone to offer improved access to meals and other home care services, having someone to check in on them in person, beyond a voice on the phone or an email.

While I can get behind cool gadgets and reading books on mobile screens, there’s something about all this ease and perfection that doesn’t give us food for the soul. The human experience. Do you really want all your dinner conversations to be interrupted by the need to respond to text messages? What happened to just talking around the table, letting the answering machine take messages and enjoying our food?

While we all like to know about the news headlines around the globe, we’re really interested in what’s happening in our neighborhoods and on our streets, things that we could happen upon and be involved in. We’re social animals who need the connections to be happy and healthy.

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Looking at a 2010 overview of scientific research on social ties and health, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, shows just how important this discussion is to our well-being. Social ties influence health behavior because they influence our habits. Your friend or spouse may inspire or monitor your activities that promote your health. In fact, our social ties can instill a sense of responsibility and concern for others so that we do things that protect our health and theirs in equal measure. There’s no question that healthy habits can be infectious and prevent illness and disease.

Harvard researchers have been trying to understand what really matters in life, and what really makes us healthy and satisfied, for 72 years. They followed 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s for a now-famous study called the Grant Study spearheaded by Harvard professor Dr. George Vaillant. Participants, including JFK, were interviewed and studied from all angles, including their diet, exercise, career changes and financial highs and lows.

Dr. Vaillant identified the factors that predict healthy aging as not smoking or abusing alcohol, some exercise, education, stable marriage, social skills and coping methods. But the bottom line about what matters, he concluded, was human relationships – the connections we have with parents, siblings, kids, spouses, friends, neighbors and mentors. A happy, healthy life doesn’t come down to money and power, but the healing presence of the people you care about.


Let’s put down the TV remote and make those human connections – behind the Facebook and smartphone activity – to share our lives up close and in person with the people who matter most.

It doesn’t hurt if they take care of laundry duty once in a while either.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.


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