What’s the secret to a long, happy life? Forget kale and kettlebells – all you need is kindness – Independent.ie

The received wisdom on how to live a longer, healthier life involves eating organic, counting steps, popping vitamins. Which is all well and good, but according to a new book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism And Kindness Can Help You Live To 100, it misses a vital aspect of our health - being positively connected to each other.

ritten by Canadian-Polish science journalist Marta Zaraska, the book presents a ton of scientific evidence which links longevity and good health with meaningful human interaction. She wrote it because she believes that "in the deluge of reductionist wellness news we've somehow lost the big picture, ignoring the things that matter the most for our longevity: relationships, emotions and the psyche."

Obviously, diet and exercise impact hugely on our health - that goes without saying - but so too do relationships, friendships, altruism, activism, and mindfulness. Zaraska illustrates, with ample scientific back-up, how improving close relationships lowers mortality risk by 45pc, working on empathy and kindness lowers it by 44pc, and volunteering and practising mindfulness each by 22pc - while exercise reduces it by 23pc.

Eating red meat increases risk of mortality by 29pc, while loneliness increases it by 26pc - which suggests going plant-based and working on your friendships will make you almost immortal. Pessimism, unhappiness and neuroticism each increase mortality risk by 14pc, whereas having a purpose in life, being agreeable, and feeling you have people you can count on reduces it by 17pc, 20pc, and 35pc respectively.

This is not to suggest that just because you're happily partnered and help out at the local animal shelter you should stop exercising or swap your five-a-day for deep fried Mars bars. It's about both. Nor is it about curing disease with positive thinking: "You can't rid yourself of cancer simply by repeating happy phrases in front of the mirror." No, this is about prevention, but instead of it being me-centred, it's we-centred.

"When you think about fad diets, miracle foods, supplements, exercise gadgets - there is tons of stuff to be purchased there," she says. "Someone is always trying to sell you something. But when it comes to 'soft' drivers of health like friendship, optimism or kindness, there is nothing to buy. No money to be made for anyone. And also the fact that we got so caught up in consumerism, into working long hours so that we can buy more and more stuff, bigger houses, fancier cars, bigger TVs and more clothes, certainly leaves less and less time to just be there for others, to sit down and think - how can I make the world a better place, how can I contribute to my community?

"Popping vitamin pills or chasing the best of organic baby arugula is very individualistic, very 'I' oriented. The only person you are thinking about is you. Whereas the mindful approach to health requires us to step back and think about the big picture, the world as a whole and your place in it.

"And even if still that first impulse here may be egoistic - you are motivated, after all, by your own health and longevity - I believe that for most people, taking a deeper look at how they spend their time and participate in the society can help them change for the better.

"And as a result we can all not only live healthier and longer, but also live in a better, nicer place, on a planet that maybe is not so ravaged by climate change and racism because we care more about each other and about our community.

"Several Japanese researchers with whom I've talked believe that one reason for their country's exceptional longevity is their collectivism, which makes people think more about others, belong to local associations, and participate in communal life."

On a practical level, Zaraska's findings come as a refreshing contrast to the relentless orthorexia of the wellness industry. Ditch goji berries and other miracle foods, ("There are no miracles"), and have a chat with your neighbour instead. "Skip fitness trackers, engage in some community gardening," she says. "If you are a bit overweight, stop obsessing: being social and mindful likely matters much more for your longevity."

Focus not (just) on kale and kettlebells, but on your immediate relationships, romantic and platonic. Avoid the Four Horsemen of relationship apocalypse - contempt, criticism, stonewalling and defensiveness. Instead, "Read books and articles on how to be a better partner and talk often about good things that happen in your daily life," says Zaraska. And when you're with your loved ones, no phubbing (snubbing them by being on your phone): "Put your phone away and cut down on social media."

Singing in a choir, disco dancing, and sports like group rowing, spinning or running are examples of synchrony, which in turn increases empathy as you synchronise with those around you. "Singing and dancing release social neurohormones such as endorphins and oxytocin," says Zaraska. As does laughing.

Avoid Botox, she says, as it freezes facial expression, which makes people harder to read. And empathy is all about mimicry, about being able to tune into another person's emotions and respond with facial feedback. Zaraska says this is harder to do if your facial muscles have been frozen. With empathy, she says "you can practise it the way you might practise tennis or yoga: the more you do it, the better you will become." Empathy leads to caring for others, and, Zaraska reminds us; "We evolved to care. Nature equipped us with systems that encourage giving. Benevolence is hardwired into the reward areas of our brainshelping others reduces stress, setting up a cascade of physiological changes that end up improving our health: reducing blood pressure, lowering inflammation, extending lives."

Empathy can not only make us live healthier and longer, but also help us be more tolerant, more open, and more caring for the world around us.

Even if your altruism is driven by selfishness - I will do a good deed for someone else because it benefits my own health - this is fine. Just do it anyway.

"It may not be very idealistic, but it sure works," says Zaraska. "Philanthropy is very contagious".

But what if you are a naturally curmudgeonly/ misanthropic/doomy, perhaps prone to neuroticism and not very conscientious? Personality impacts on longevity, which means 'don't worry be happy' is genuine medical advice. But what if you are not that type of person? Zaraska says you can cultivate personality traits that will impact positively on your health - "fake it to make it, set yourself small challenges of conscientiousness" (She means tidy your sock drawer, your desk top). Tackle neuroticism by sharing your problems with others, and - the real key to contentment - "try to find a deeper purpose."

This is, however, easier said than done, which is why she advocates some kind of mindfulness meditation: "Choose the mind-body technique you find most appealing, be it yoga, mindfulness, tai chi, and try to practice regularly and long-term; the more you stick with it, the more benefits you will get."

Especially if you are trying to implement slow but sure change across other areas of your life - less arguing with your partner, more community oriented activity, less stress, more disco dancing - having a meditative practise will enhance everything else. It really is magic. As is optimism, even when the world around us is going through all kinds of convulsions.

"I'm always hopeful - remember, optimism makes us live longer!" says Zaraska. "Maybe sometimes we humans need a bit of a catastrophe to push us in the right direction, refocus us on what really matters. I also believe the big thing here is empathy - and it's something we can train the way we train our abdominal muscles. Empathy can not only make us live healthier and longer, but also help us be more tolerant, more open, and more caring for the world around us." In addition to the advice offered by US academic Michael Pollan, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants", Zaraska adds her own: "Be social, care for others, enjoy life."

It's priceless, and it's free.

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What's the secret to a long, happy life? Forget kale and kettlebells - all you need is kindness - Independent.ie

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