Friday, July 26, 2013

The Power of a Four-Way Wrench and Why Embracing Strangers is Good For Your Health

I left Local Bar + Kitchen after some chow with Evan Handyside, a good friend of mine and contributor to this very blog. Our schedules rarely align, but, when they do, our meetings always turn into several-hour ordeals. My work schedule makes it difficult to meet up with friends, especially when your friends are entrepreneurs that work impossibly long hours as well (just ask Evan). One of my priorities over the past few years has been to invest as much time into my social network as possible. The members of my network reciprocate, and we benefit mutually.

As you’re probably aware, members of the communities with the highest concentration of centenarians around the world have extensive social networks, and they invest a great deal of their daily life to maintaining and creating interpersonal relationships (check out the work of Dan Buettner if this is the first time you’re hearing this). Evan and I benefited mutually from the 2-hour merry-making session as those people in the blue zones benefit from a life that focuses on relationships. But this meeting isn’t really what I want to focus on here. Read on.

I was driving home from the bar, and I hit what seemed like a half-curb that somebody must have put there to trip me up (couldn’t have been my fault, right?), and I heard a loud hissing sound followed by a clunking noise: flat tire. A few moments later, I was on my hands and knees fussing with a stiff jack trying to get my car’s rear end off the pavement to change my stinkin’ tire. Then it started to rain. Then it started to pour.

Rushing through the job, clothes soaked throughout, two guys called to me from the rain holding umbrellas. “We heard you hit that metal grate at the corner, and we knew you must have gone flat...Seen it a hundred times. Do you need any help?” They offered me a 4-way wrench, which expedited the process. One of the guys, Dave, helped me get the flat off of the studs, and Sid, his brother, helped me replace the lugs. While the three of us fumbled in the dark, a set of headlights suddenly illuminated the scene: another good samaritan trying to help out in whatever way possible.

“Good thing this happened in Pittsburgh, eh?” said Sid. He was referring to the community fostered by Pittsburghers. The city is known for this: We look out for one another. In the animal kingdom, organisms more commonly than not operate in packs, flocks, or cultures and we interact with them in an ecosystem whereby each member prescribing to the rules of this ecosystem benefit mutually. So it’s no surprise to learn from current research on the civilizations whose individuals live, on average, longer than the rest of the human populace that our health and general well-being might benefit from dedicating a chunk of our day to have a good laugh with friends.

Indeed, a metanalysis performed by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her team at Brigham Young University in Utah showed that social networks have as profound an effect on mortality risk as many of the conventional risk factors (smoking, alcohol consumption, sedentarism, etc.).

In her summary, she states:

“Although further research is needed to determine exactly how social relationships can be used to reduce mortality risk, physicians, health professionals, educators, and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality, the researchers conclude.”

This isn’t to say that you are on a path for total destruction if you can’t spend two hours with a good friend(s) every night, but it certainly does suggest that your health and longevity would benefit from dinner with your spouse or drinks with an old friend.

Nerdy research aside, we know that spending quality time with the ones we love makes us happy. Those evenings where we spend a few extra moments soaking in the positive vibes of some Dave Matthews and laughter with our pals leave us longing for more. They leave us wishing we could “do that more often”. Evolutionary theory suggests that these feelings are a natural part of our human make-up; we benefit from social interaction. Indeed, our prehistoric ancestors largely depended on strong relationships within a close-knit social network to survive to an age at which they could reproduce.

My fellow Pittsburghers didn’t think twice when they heard my tire blow. Their gut told them to offer me help. Likewise, the elderly man that sat for twenty minutes with his headlights focused on our work site didn’t blink an eye. These are busy people with many of the same responsibilities that you and I share, yet they invested a small part of their day to support a member of their human network. For them, “us” is greater than “me”. I imagine that they wouldn’t bat an eye at an offer to have dinner with friends, regardless of how busy and important they perceive their lives.

So, following their example, would it kill you to call your mother or best friend once in awhile?

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine; He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD. He can be reached at

For information check out the following links:
Dan Buettner’s TED Talk: How to Live to Be 100+
The Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner
The Longevity Project, by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin

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