Thursday, March 29, 2012


Maybe I should blame it on aging, but the world looks ever more simple to me. These days, the most potent medicine looks like living well, period.

What exactly does that mean? Lying around the pool with a mint julep in one hand and Cuban cigar in the other? Maybe for some, but most of us really need to think about what our personal “good life” is.

We'd probably include friendships in our definition. A substantial mass of research indicates that the benefit of intimacy with others exceeds that of most drugs and surgeries. One study of seven thousand men and women, for example, found that people unconnected to others were three times as likely to die over the course of nine years as those who had strong social ties. That study inventoried lifestyles, too. As you might guess, those with fewest ties and unhealthiest styles suffered the shortest life spans, and those who lived healthfully and had strong social ties lived the longest. But wrap your mind around this: those with close social ties and unhealthy lifestyles actually lived longer than those with sparse social ties but more health-promoting habits. 

In another study, researchers taped the conversations of nearly six hundred men, of whom a third had heart disease. They found that those who used first-person pronouns—I, me, mine—most often were most likely to have heart disease and most likely over the next few years to suffer heart attacks. In another study of over two thousand heart attack survivors, social connectedness had a greater influence on survival than the heart drug being tested.

This makes me recall another study, of women with breast cancer. All else equal, their survival duration was directly proportional to the number of their “confidants.” Those with no intimate friends survived the shortest time; those with six—the maximum number the study tracked—survived the longest.

I don’t want to minimize the value of friendships, but I doubt that’s all we’re discussing here. It’s more about having a good time such that we want to remain here longer. While this seems a simple enough goal, too many of us feel we don’t deserve a good time, as that would be hedonistic, self-absorbed, or in some way existentially elitist. If that’s you, are you willing to reconsider?


  1. Meanwhile, everyone I know complains that a doctor visit = prescription for pills. That seems to be all they do; prescribe medicine. That's why I believe the American Cancer Society is in the business of "medicine for cancer" rather than "cure" for cancer. Live well, love and appreciate your friends and family and exercise your body....I believe that's the best defense against disease!!

    1. Yup, patients expect pills...and doctors expect to prescribe them, too. An anthropologist might conclude that pill-passing is a shamanistic ritual, bearing potent placebo mojo.

      Culturally, our pill obsession comes from the notion that sickness is nothing more than a chemical derangement. Over the decades, we've bought into the view that in healthcare, people--their values, habits, and emotions--don't matter much.

      Of course, I plan to clear this all up with my upcoming book, to be e-published later this year. Stand by.