Which is most likely to make you significantly happier and healthier?
1. Play with the dog.
2. Play with a cat.
3. Post to your “friends” on Facebook.
4. Post pictures of dogs and cats for your “friends” on Facebook.
5. None of the above.
Many, many scientific studies reveal that being actively involved with friends and associates is an excellent predictor of well-being. There is even pretty good evidence that getting yourself more involved in a social network with others, such as by volunteering in the community, is a reliable way to make yourself feel better, both mentally and physically. Or, if you prefer scientific jargon, we could say: Individuals who are well integrated into their communities are much happier and healthier, as compared to the network-less lonely recluse.
Right now, tens of millions of people worldwide are spending time on THE social network, namely Facebook. So why isn’t everyone doing great? Is Facebooking just as good as hanging out in real life? Perhaps it matters what you are doing on Facebook? Browsing around, I've noticed that there are more than a few pictures and videos of dogs and cats in cyberspace. Most of us love pets, so does this kind of posting provide a double benefit? All the evidence is not yet here (as studies continue to trickle in), but I doubt that Facebook is the secret to vitality and longevity.
I have nothing against Facebook, beyond the usual gripes about privacy, wasting time, and the ever-changing views and rules. In fact, I am one of Facebook’s longest-serving users, because I was able to use my alumnus email address to join way back in 2004, when access was still being restricted. And my colleagues and I regularly post information about our Longevity Project on its Facebook page. But I do have some scientific concerns about the nature and limits of being friends on Facebook, which are being confirmed by recent studies. Alas, viewing a Facebook friend is not like being involved in a real-life social network.
In my long-term research on the Longevity Project, we have been studying 1500 bright Americans who were first examined as children around the year 1921. They were followed for their whole lives, not only men but 672 women as well. We ask: “Who lives long, healthy, and happy lives, and why?” We confirmed that good social relationships are a major contributor on the road to health and fulfillment, although we discovered many twists and turns as well. A small number of our participants are still alive, and we were thrilled when we recently located one. Do you know where we found him? On Facebook. Yes, there are 98-year-olds on Facebook.
But if you look carefully at what it means to be actively involved in a social network, it turns out that Internet sites (including Facebook) tend to fall short. Ironically, we got some clues about social involvement when we looked at how much our research participants played with pets. Contrary to what everyone expected, playing with pets was not health promoting across the long-term. Pets are loving and fun, but cannot provide the real social ties that are essential to thriving as a human being. We found (and other studies confirm), however, that being involved with real, live people really does help tremendously, whether it is a good marriage, being active in community or religious organizations, or helping others. Even close, extended families were generally health-promoting.
No one knows for sure exactly why this is, but it most likely has to do with keeping you on track in your daily, weekly, and monthly lives. Are you starting to eat too much, watch too much TV, forget your medications, get depressed, develop a fever, miss school, slack off at work, dwell on unhappy thoughts, or be a couch potato stuck to the couch? If you have friends to see, events to attend, and caring others to help you stay thoughtful and focused, you are much, much less likely to wander away from a meaningful life and fall off the healthy track.
So, the answer to the quiz is “5. None of the above.” But we can surmise that there is very good news as well. If you use Facebook to make a date with a friend to go out walking your dogs, or even to go out walking with your friends while talking about those funny cat videos, that probably is a very good step towards happiness and health. There is no scientific study yet of Facebook, social activities, and subsequent health, but given what we know about long-term healthy paths, it's a good bet that a great use of a virtual social network is to enhance the use of your real-life social networks.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project was recently published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ )and is available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Photo 7 weeks old hovawart puppy |Source=Bodlina Wikipedia commons