In the $4.2 trillion world of wellness, people often chase transformative habits or miracle products to help them live longer, healthier. There is a seemingly infinite number of superfoods, stem cell infusions, and detox programs, each costing a pretty penny.
But according to a growing body of research, some of the most influential factors shaping longevity don't cost a dime. Scientists called these factors soft health drivers. These include social networks, relationships, kindness, conscientiousness, optimism, and volunteerism. They can make everyday living better — and add years to your life.
"Whereas diet and exercise are important, the social connection and the soft drivers of health — how you live your life, mentally, and socially — are even more important," science journalist Marta Zaraska tells Inverse.
Zaraska recently synthesized the bulk of research on soft health drivers in her book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.
These drivers can reduce mortality from 45 percent up to 65 percent. Unlike most wellness fads, they're pleasurable — no cutting back on something you love — and a lot easier than sticking to the latest diet or popping supplements.
"These soft drivers are fun," Zaraska says. "They make life better and nicer — not just for you but for people around you as well."
HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — For years, Zaraska was swept up in the search for so-called "fountain of youth" products. She was obsessive about feeding her child nutritious food and would often jump on the latest wellness trend.
While researching for a new story, Zaraska stumbled across a trove of data suggesting these shortcuts were less able to promote longevity than she — and likely many others — realized. She learned it was probably more worthwhile to help out a neighbor than put collagen into her coffee.
"I really learned that I wasn't putting all my energy where it should be going and spending too much time and too much effort and money on things like chia seeds and goji berries and all the 'miracle foods' of the day," Zaraska recalls. "I should have been putting more effort into simple things like friendships, spending time with my husband, trying to be kinder, more optimistic, and more organized."
"I should have been putting more effort into simple things like friendships... "
What you eat and how you move your body still matter for living long: Diet and exercise can lower our mortality risk by about 35 percent. But at the same time, social connections — with romantic partners, friends, community members, and neighbors — can lower the mortality risk by about 45 percent to 65 percent.
Soft health drivers have positive effects on emotions, which in turn, have cascading positive effects on physiology. The underlying mechanisms appear to be connected with tamping down stress and inflammation, increasing feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, and supporting brain health.
Zaraska says she is often asked: "Isn't this kind of 'new-agey' stuff? Kindness, gratitude, mindfulness friendship — it sounds all fluffy, right?"
"The truth is, it's extremely biological and physiological," Zaraska explains. "We are social apes. We evolved to be living in our tribe and this is how our bodies function the best."
WHY IT'S A HACK — Until recently, soft health drivers were largely overlooked and underestimated for two reasons, Zaraska says.
First: People gravitate towards "easy, fast, quantifiable solutions."
Second: There's no money to be made in these soft health drivers, so companies have no incentive to promote them. Rather than invest in the latest fitness tracker or protein additive, soft health drivers require an afternoon volunteering at the local food bank or simply a call to a family member.
Luckily, having a healthy social and emotional life doesn't entail a bulletproof marriage or a hundred friends. It's just asking yourself: Do I have someone to confide in? Am I connected to my community? Do I know my neighbors? Am I kind to others?
All too often the answer is no, research shows. More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship, according to a survey released in January 2020.
Reflecting on these questions, then taking action to become more connected, will help people garner the benefit of soft drivers. It's about looking at the "big picture of your life," Zaraska says.
SCIENCE IN ACTION — Strengthening social networks, helping others, and cultivating positive thinking may seem abstract. But Zaraska assures that there are easy, actionable ways to put this research into practice. She offers the following tips:
- Make time: Much like you can work toward hitting a daily goal of 10,000 steps, you should think of soft drivers as health habits you have to make time for. Schedule a daily window to do them — in action, this could be calling a friend or making breakfast for your partner.
- Start small: Soft drivers don't require turning your routine upside down. Instead, each day, take five minutes to write down two things you can do to flex this "soft" muscle. Maybe this means letting somebody ahead in traffic or giving a compliment to a coworker.
- Simplify: Soft health drivers, diet, and exercise aren't as complicated as they're made out to be. As you incorporate these socially-rooted habits, you can let go of the fad diets or rigid exercise programs. Instead, keep it simple: stay active, eat lots of plants, and engage with the people in your life.
- Get organized: One key soft driver, and according to Zaraska, and perhaps the most surprising of the bunch is conscientiousness — the propensity to pay bills on time, keep a tidy home, and stay organized. One researcher told her, "If conscientiousness could be made into a pill, it would be the most powerful drug ever invented." Try to keep your space clean and avoid becoming overwhelmed with the mundane tasks that keep life chugging along.
HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 👯👯👯👯👯 (10 fun, relationship-building activities)