NEWS
09/09/2014 04:38 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

'The Village Effect' explores health benefits of face-to-face contact

TORONTO - While sharing quality time with loved ones may offer an instant mood booster, a new book suggests such routine interactions could offer even greater benefits in terms of bolstering your health and well-being — and potentially even lengthening your life.

In "The Village Effect" (Random House Canada), Canadian developmental psychologist Susan Pinker conducts an extensive exploration into the value of interpersonal relationships and face-to-face contact — key connections she contends can't be replaced by emails, texts and online posts.

"Because digital communication is so fast and powerful and — in some cases — cheap, we are investing a tremendous amount in saying: 'This is the answer to our isolation or our need for connection,'" the award-winning Montreal-based author said in a recent interview.

"You can search for information, we can answer logistical problems ... but you cannot build deep human connection with these devices."

In one study outlined in the book, researchers gave computers to a group of families and tracked the activities and moods of those over the age of 10 for two years. Not only was the teens' face-to-face social contact reduced and replaced by virtual experiences, but the more time they spent online, the less socially engaged and lonelier they felt. Pinker notes in the book that personality does have a role to play, and that outgoing teens can more easily forge social connections through wireless communication.

Still, she sees the potential for a "happy medium" that balances both in-person contact and technology. "I think it's a question of tweaking or course correction."

Pinker said one of the reasons she wrote the book was to emphasize the need to foster smaller, intimate networks among friends and family, but also with neighbours, colleagues and others with shared interests.

"It improves the quality of our lives and our moods. It makes us happier," she said. "It builds stronger communities, and stronger communities are related to all sorts of things: kids' learning and health, our own lifespans, but also because it's good for everyone."

One of the inspirations for "The Village Effect" is a remote region on the Italian island of Sardinia which is home to a sizable population of centenarians and where men regularly live as long as women. Pinker writes of her journey there and examines not only the role genetics plays in longevity but also the nurturing nature of the tight-knit community which care for and celebrate their elders, and the value such interactions bring to all involved.

But even for those living farther afield, face-to-face contact can yield advantages — even through something as routine as a family meal. One study which surveyed the eating habits of Minnesota teens at age 12 and substance use five years later found that girls who regularly ate with their families at the beginning of middle school had half the odds of others their age of drinking, smoking and regularly using marijuana at 17. Another study which tracked 18,000 American adolescents determined that it was face-to-face interaction — not shared meals per se — that was protective.

"Eating together is simply a focused — often the only — way many parents connect with their kids," Pinker wrote. "The more engaged and less embattled the parenting, the stronger the connection between eating together and reduced rates of depression, delinquency and substance abuse later."

Pinker also explores the protective benefits offered by marriage — particularly for men. Men who are single or divorced are 250 per cent more likely to die prematurely than married men at any age. She also writes that the risk of an older married man dying within months of his wife increases by 30 to 90 per cent, a phenomenon known as "the widowhood effect."

"For men, often the only person they have in their networks is their wives who they confide in, and when that's taken away they have absolutely no one. They're immunologically naked," Pinker said. "They might have a few friends, but let's face it: most men when they get to a certain stage in adulthood, a lot of men don't groom their relationships the way women do.

"They don't have their book clubs as often, they don't go and have ladies' lunches. They're not the ones organizing the holiday dinners. In general, they're riding along and benefiting from the women's networks, so that if a woman disappears from their life all of a sudden from death or illness or divorce, their whole social network disappears. Whereas women are a little better buttressed because ... they tend to put more emphasis on making sure they're in touch with everybody."

Pinker has embraced her own village, making a concerted effort to engage with and talk to neighbours. While she used to exercise alone, she now does so as part of a team, an experience she said has enriched her life.

After learning a team member's husband had been diagnosed with cancer and was "not in a good way," Pinker felt it was important to reach out to her. Even as the author was busy packing for a book tour, she was preparing a chicken dinner to take to the woman's home.

"Not everybody believes that the digital connection isn't good enough. I mean, I think it's great, but it's just not good enough for me. I make the effort to meet people."

Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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Online:

www.susanpinker.com