MIND-HEALING: It’s healthy to stay sociable
Late last year, Joe Bartley, an 89-year-old pensioner, put an advert in his local paper asking for employment in order to save him, as he put it, “from dying of boredom”. Joe was overwhelmed, not only with job offers but with messages of support.
Just how important to our physical and psychological wellbeing is it to continue to play an active role in society? Extremely important, says Prof Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England. In her most recent annual report on the state of the nation’s health, she said staying in work – either as a volunteer, in paid employment or as part of a community group – helps older people stay physically and mentally active for longer. The health benefits, she added, “cannot be overestimated”.
So, what are these supposed benefits?
First, work imposes a structure that allows us to feel safe. Any lack of it, for those who are used to it, can lead to anxiety and poor confidence. Norman Feather, at the University of Southern Australia, interviewed both employed and unemployed graduates and found that those in work felt more organised and purposeful, had fewer depressive symptoms and reported higher rates of self-esteem.
Secondly, an ongoing contribution to society helps us maintain a clearer sense of identity and positive self-worth. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson proposed that we go through eight stages of development in our lives and that at Stage 5 – identity versus role confusion – we establish a sense of personal identity that includes our occupation. Later, during Stage 7 – generativity versus stagnation – we satisfy the need to feel part of our community through work, involvement in community organisations and/or raising children. Erikson’s theories sparked much research, showing that a clear sense of identity and social involvement is linked to high self-esteem and positive mood. Work, insofar as it involves cooperating with others, is associated with less anxiety and depression.
Joanna McHugh and Brian Lawlor at Trinity College Dublin concluded from interviews with 583 older adults that good social support, along with physical exercise, has strong links with lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also found sleep quality was better in those who were involved in their communities.
As well as work, regular socialising also fosters better physical health and a longer life as James House, of the University of Michigan, found in 1988 after a wide review of studies showed a clear association between positive social relationships and physical wellbeing. His findings were backed by Thomas Glass’s 13-year study of 2,761 older residents of New Haven, Connecticut, which found social and productive activities, whether paid or not, were as effective as fitness activities in promoting good health.
In sum, remaining socially active throughout your life will repay you generously, both physically and psychologically.
The Telegraph, London
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