Oh, *That’s* What Friends Are For!

An article in the January 2014 issue of Monitor on Psychology, a journal from the American Psychological Association, has some surprising conclusions about the benefits of having friends.  The article is called “Friends wanted.”

One of the most interesting lines in the article is from a study done by Brigham Young University.  They “…found that participants with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over the studies’ given periods than those with weaker connections — a risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.”  That’s pretty significant.  Being lonely is worse for your survival than smoking or obesity.

The conventional wisdom has been that social connections help survival because people are there to drive you to the doctor, or remind you to take your medication, or other direct reasons.  But this article suggests that the actual feelings of loneliness may be the culprit, and may be connected to blood pressure, immune response, and disease recovery speed.

They also found out that people are becoming less connected.  Family, church, and other real-life social networks are becoming less a part of our lives. People are marrying later and divorcing at a higher rate, leaving a larger number of people living alone.

The conclusion is that adult platonic friendships are important, and we should put effort into building and maintaining those relationships.  The article goes on to suggest several ways to make friends and keep those connections.

My wife and I have often talked about how nice it would be to have a group of friends with whom we could go out to dinner, or something.  This article may motivate me to get off the couch and give someone a call.

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No Mud, No Lotus

"Sacred lotus Nelumbo nucifera" by T.Voekler - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sacred_lotus_Nelumbo_nucifera.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sacred_lotus_Nelumbo_nucifera.jpg

I had an experience a few years ago that psychologists call a “peak experience,” where my perspective radically shifted.  I was doing the thing where you feel sorry for yourself for having to get up and be at work every day, and I was fantasizing about having all the money I needed, so I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to.  It occurred to me that this wouldn’t be a good thing at all.  I suddenly realized how much of the good in my life came not in spite of the hard stuff, but because of it.  And how much of that hard stuff was the good stuff – that was the real epiphany.

Working a difficult job that I was barely qualified for, for instance, required me to learn new skills.  The huge mistakes I’ve made have taught me new lessons, and made me more compassionate to others in similar circumstances.  Raising children has been among the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist teacher, has a favorite saying: “No mud, no lotus.”  He goes into detail here:

“It’s like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them in mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That’s why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering .. I would not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because, in such a place, they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate.”

(From Brother Thay, A Radio Pilgrimage, June 4, 2009.)

Instead of fearing and retreating from the hard parts of life, now I try to embrace and appreciate them.

Get a good night’s sleep. Seriously.

I’ve always been a big believer in getting enough sleep.  I think I lose about five I.Q. points for every hour less than eight that I sleep.  I’ve always been annoyed by co-workers who brag about how little sleep they get.

Arianna Huffington agrees with me.

So does science.

It’s amazing how many areas of our well-being are affected by getting enough sleep.  Emotional and psychological, intelligence and problem-solving, ADHD, and stress all make sense to me, but it also includes weight loss, healing from wounds, digestion, sex, and lots of other things.  This seems like an easy, lots-of-bang-for-your-buck self-help technique.

All of this is just to explain why I usually leave parties around 10 pm.

Thought Experiment: My grandfather’s axe

AxeThe famous ontological thought experiment goes like this: “This axe belonged to my grandfather.  The head has been replaced twice, and the handle once.”

An earlier example of this is the Ship of Theseus, where pieces of the ship were replaced, plank by plank and nail by nail over the years, until every part of the ship was new.

These two stories are designed to make us think about the problem of identity.  Is the axe still the same one that your grandfather used?  At what point in the life of Theseus’ ship did it become a whole new vessel, if at all?  There’s a popular story that every atom in our body is replaced every year, or seven years, or ten years.*  What does that mean about our own identities?  Am I the same person I was when I was a child?  So much is different – what connects me to that child?  Philosophers disagree about the answer, but I think the question is interesting in itself.

*It turns out that, while that’s mostly true (at different rates for different tissue types), some of our neurons, at least, remain the same throughout our lives, so that example doesn’t quite hold up.