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The importance of community for health and productivity

by Rebecca Dalzell

The evidence is clear: When we take time to set aside our phones, meet people in real life and build trusting relationships, we live richer, longer and more productive lives.

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Anyone with a smartphone feels the daily demand of maintaining their digital connections through a tiny screen. And while this impulse may feel normal, it is drastically different than people’s behaviour just a few decades ago.

In the 1960s Americans spent 10 hours a week watching television; now that number is more than 19 hours per week, according to the 2017 American Time Use Survey. That doesn’t even include the time people spend on their phones, which averages around five hours per day, up 20 percent from 2015.

It’s perhaps due to all this screen time that people today spend only 4.5 hours a week socialising. According to a 2016 General Social Survey, one-third of Americans report never socialising with their neighbours, an all-time record.

This increase in digital activity brings today’s tech-savvy population to a crux: How do people stay productive in their jobs and connected in their personal lives while still fostering the type of in-person community engagement that can make them happier and more fulfilled?

Today, scientific research repeatedly shows that strong personal bonds and a sense of community don’t just predict a longer life and ability to withstand stress, they also promote fulfilment and productivity.

As you keep your iPhone, e-book and activity tracker close at hand, here are five reasons why it can pay off to also socialise in real life.

Researchers from Brigham Young University have found that people with many good friendships live longer than those without them. In a comprehensive analysis that compared 148 studies of more than 300,000 people, the researchers found that strong community ties increased the chance of survival by 50 percent. According to their findings, an active social life is even better for longevity than exercise is.

Here’s the catch: The quality and quantity of relationships matter. To live longer, it’s important to cultivate a wide network of meaningful social connections.

Strong community ties increased the chance of survival by 50 percent.

Close relationships are the most important ingredient for a happy life, according to the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development.

For more than 75 years, researchers tracked 724 men — 268 Harvard graduates and 456 inner-city Boston residents — following them from youth to old age, looking at what variables predict healthy ageing. The verdict? More than money, fame or good genes, loving relationships predict happiness and fulfilment over a lifetime.

The reason, it turns out, is relatively intuitive. When you have a partner or close friend to rely on, you can relax. It reduces physical and emotional pain, making it easier to cope with life’s setbacks.

 

“Over these 75 years … the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, friends, with community.”

– Robert Waldinger director of the Harvard study

Emma Seppälä, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of ‘The Happiness Track’, writes that people who feel connected to others are more trusting and cooperative.

They also tend to have higher self-esteem and deeper empathy. What’s more, they are less anxious, show lower levels of depression and are better at regulating their emotions. To nurture the types of bonds that elicit these effects, Seppälä has two straightforward recommendations:

  • Ask for help. When you reach out to someone, it creates a sense of belonging for both of you.
  • Volunteer. It fosters a sense of purpose and connection.

While companies have worried that water-cooler chats may result in business losses, new research finds that, in fact, a sense of community boosts productivity in the office.

To look deeper at social interaction and workplace productivity, Ben Waber, author of ‘People Analytics’, studied the culture at Bank of America call centres. He divided 25,000 employees into two groups: One took breaks at the same time, and the other took staggered breaks alone.

After three months, employees who took breaks together formed cohesive social groups and felt less stressed. They also completed calls 23 percent more quickly, saving the bank an estimated $15 million a year.

In 1997, psychology researchers at Carnegie Mellon University infected 276 healthy volunteers with the common cold. As it turns out, those with more social ties, especially diverse networks, were less susceptible to the virus.

The more social roles played, such as a parent, friend and colleague, the fewer cases of catching a cold.

While 68 percent of those who played one-to-five social roles got sick, only 51 percent of those who played six or more social roles were affected by the same illness [Source].

Twenty years have passed since the study, but the findings hold true. People who are more connected tend to stay healthier in times of stress.

A return to community

As technology becomes more sophisticated, devices will become even bigger parts of people’s lives. Yet in the midst of this daily digital correspondence, all would fare well to keep this mantra in mind: Socialisation improves health and careers.

When people take time to set aside their phones, meet people in real life and build trusting relationships, they live richer, longer and more productive lives.