In the networked world produced by technology evolving at an ever-accelerating rate, we are more interconnected than ever, in ways that give new meaning to the concept of “face time.” We enjoy fantastic scientific advances and conveniences that extend and enhance physical well-being that would have seemed magical to people even a few decades ago. But what if the secret to a longer, healthier life was as fundamental and time-honored as face-to-face time? What if the most reliable technology is our brain’s responsiveness to friendly, fun, engaging interaction with other human beings? 

Science may have produced the means to communicate to anyone, anywhere at the speed of light but also shows that our humanity — our internal creative resources, our storytelling, collaborative abilities — is an essential ingredient to health and well-being over our lifespan. The data strongly suggest that real-time supportive, interesting, and positive interactions with other people are good for both head and heart in ways that technology cannot replicate. Smartphones, for example, with their remarkable capacity to keep communication current, have a negative effect on face-to-face interactions. A study published in the journal Computers In Human Behaviorshowed that people who self-describe as lonely perceive a reduction in social support when relying on their phone. 

One study — “Alleviating Depression Only To Become Problematic Phone Users: Can Face To Face Communication Be The Antidote?” —suggests that this may be due to a lack of confidence in the kind of interpersonal communication skills that enhance mental and emotional health. Improv training — which teaches how to shift our focus from anxiety to curiosity, from self-protection to self-expression — is an approach some may view as paradoxical because it seems like a plunge into the emotional risks that people with social anxiety want to avoid. But because of its emphasis on eye contact, listening, and close attention to others within a structured, supportive group, improv is a remedial form that reduces symptoms and strengthens the emotional agility to navigate the social world with greater confidence. The bonus is that it is so much fun.

In a kind of “goldilocks” combination of structure — which helps us know the guidelines for how to behave in a situation — with freedom and novelty, creative experiences like improvisation result in a cocktail of “reward” chemistry in the brain. Improv is all about people connecting to other people to explore ideas and relationships. Psychologist Susan Pinker writes that direct person-to-person contact triggers parts of our nervous system that release a “cocktail” of neurotransmitters tasked with regulating our response to stress and anxiety.

“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, and well into the future, so simply […] shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress.”

Strengthening our ability to make, grow, and contribute in relationships may be among the most significant investments we can make to our longevity, well-being and health. In his TED talk What Makes A Good Life? Lessons From The Longest Study On Happiness, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger — director of The Harvard Study Of Adult Development — reports that when data from all the participants was gathered together, so that researchers were looking at “everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 until 2004 further reflects that “when the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Jude Treder-Wolff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Group Psychotherapist, Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, storytelller and improviser. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show performed monthly in New York and for special performances around the country, and is active in the NY storytelling scene. Her company, Lifestage, Inc designs and facilitates creative training workshops for personal and professional development.
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Jude Treder-Wolff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Group Psychotherapist, Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, storytelller and improviser. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show performed monthly in New York and for special performances around the country, and is active in the NY storytelling scene. Her company, Lifestage, Inc designs and facilitates creative training workshops for personal and professional development.

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