Monday, December 08, 2014

It really, really IS who you know!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, sociability, relationships

Do you want to live longer and better, be healthier and smarter? For about 3/4 of us, a truly holistic doctor would prescribe, "Join another group or two; spend more time with people you enjoy and love; get out more." Who would such a prescription not help? Those who already have strong, vibrant social networks. The rest of us would be well advised to develop them. Clue: a vibrant social group is not to be found in virtual space or on your computer or phone. Human faces work better than Skype, much better, infinitely better.

Humans really are social animals, though the extent of our sociability varies. For reasons yet to be ferreted out, all the genes that either strengthen or weaken social tendencies seem to be carried in all of us, but are differently expressed in every individual. How else to explain my family: my wife and I are both very introverted, yet our son is powerfully extroverted (or extraverted, as Carl Jung originally spelled the term); my father is an extrovert, my mother was more reserved, but very sociable, and my siblings and I seem to cover the spectrum (I am the most introverted).

It is becoming better known that married men, in particular, live 10-15 years longer than single or divorced men. The effect is not as strong for women, who tend to have better social lives than men even when they are introverts. Also, having a "partner" is not the same as having a married spouse, and confers no extra longevity benefit. It seems far too many married men have such poor social lives that their wives are their only close confidants (because "men don't talk about those things").

While reading The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter" by Susan Pinker, I suddenly remembered the play Our Town. Nearly all I can recall is when the narrator looks out and says, "…one day you look at the gray-haired woman at your side and realize the two of you have shared 50,000 meals…" Of many things Ms Pinker repeats throughout the book, sharing mealtimes, during which you actually converse, rather than grunting over the morning paper or whatever, and particularly starting in infancy, foretells how healthy and successful you are likely to be all your life.

50,000 meals. You know I always have to figure things out. Thornton Wilder must have been thinking mainly of farm families, in which the farmer returns home for mealtimes. Three meals a day works out to nearly 1,100 yearly, so 50,000 meals is a bit over 45 years. Even in 1938 when the play was written, an American couple who'd survived their childhoods, and were starting a life together by age 20 or 22, could expect 45-50 years together.

What of today, when most American couples see each other mainly at dinnertime? There's no way to accumulate 50,000 mealtimes together. For example, my wife and I have been married just 40 years. Nearly all that time, we shared 10-11 meals per week, depending on whether one of us slept through the other eating breakfast on a weekend morning. Throw in a couple weeks of vacation or staycation, with 21 meals together each of those weeks, and it comes to about 565 meals together yearly, or more than 22,600, but way less than Thornton Wilder's calculation. Now in retirement, we average about 18 weekly, and we're happier and more relaxed (not having bosses is also a big help!).

The book begins with stories of a couple of breast cancer survivors, and the social settings both enjoyed, that helped them cope with the sudden and extended disruption of their lives. They are contrasted with people who have little or no social support, and the studies that have shown they are much, much more likely to die shortly after diagnosis, even with aggressive treatment.

The second chapter probes an area of Sicily in which intense social support is the norm, and in which the number of 100-year-olds is 3-4 times what you'd expect. This is a well-attested matter, compared to earlier reports of extreme eldership in parts of Russia, where it was found that young men in Tsarist Russia had taken their dead fathers' identities to avoid military service, or in certain parts of Japan, where the dead had been reported as living for decades so their families could get government support payments (similar to one kind of Social Security fraud). In these villages, everyone truly knows everyone, and they care for one another with rare intensity.

Not everyone can handle the kind of ardent sociality the central Sicilians find normal. I wonder how introverts fare in those villages. But even introverts need at least a few close friends. The quintessential loner of our time, the Unabomber, who took great care to be as unknown as possible, was eventually discovered through his brother. Having "nearly no contact" did not equate to having none at all.

A major theme of the book is that our gadgets are no substitute for friends. Even though we might have tons of online "friends" through FaceBook or something similar, there isn't any health benefit to keeping up with all their Updates or Tweets. Nor are there any intellectual benefits. Rather, quite the opposite. Without going back over all the chapters about the effects of electronic gadgetry on children, I think it is safe to state this conclusion:
Both children and adults learn much, much better from the tutelage of a skilled teacher, than from any combination of laptops, smart phone apps, and other electronic substitutes, including MOOC's. (My conclusion; the author's is lengthier and more specific)
That is why families with the money to do so are putting their children into private schools that have demonstrably great teachers. There is much debate recently about the re-segregation of our schools. In a country where many more blacks are poor in comparison to whites, this is a visible matter. Stand outside a private school and count how many kids of each color exit at the end of the day. I have an idea: for every two children in a private school, offer free tuition to a minority child, and sufficient support by counselors to ensure a realistic chance at success. You'd also need to train the rest of the kids in kindness toward the free kids, or the school will internally segregate.

I suppose it started with the Boob Tube. TV has been around almost exactly as long as I have. Once considered a great "babysitter", the TV set has been exposed for what it is, a kind of "empty calories for the mind" machine. Too many of us are as inactive and "obese" mentally as physically (Think of obesity as a principle: mass without muscle. Apply that to your mind. Not a pretty picture).

It is too bad the word "friend" wasn't trademarked and made unavailable before FaceBook took it over. A "FB Friend" is not usually a friend. The default term ought to be "acquaintance". In the past few years the FB folks have made available some categories, such as "acquaintances", "close friends" (AKA your actual friends you're likely to meet face-to-face), and "relatives". Only an actual, physical friend can take you to the store when your battery's dead—and call AAA for you because so is your cell phone—, or give you a foot massage, meet you for a coffee or soda (I don't drink beer), and care for your cat when you're away for a couple of days. Ms Pinker makes a strong case that those who spend the most time online spend the least time with real people, and are thus the loneliest. And they'll often tell you that.

There is the Dunbar Number, named for Robin Dunbar of Oxford: 150. That is the number of strong relationships humans can effectively manage. Even then, not all will be equally strong. I think of a very social fellow in Bible history, king David. During his vagrant days, on the run from king Saul, he had about 400 men who followed him. Still, there were "the 30" and "the 3", and a second "3 who did not attain to the first 3". "The 3" seem to have each managed around 130 of the men, with the help of about 10 of "the 30", and possibly one each of the other "3" as a lieutenant. Let's compare with typical numbers of "FB Friends".

I have 146 "FB Friends". OF those, 23 are children of church friends (a "church kid" category), 12 are former colleagues from work (with a FB "smart tag" of the company name), 14 are "relatives", and 12 I count as "close friends" in that FB category. My closest friend other than my wife, a man I typically eat with at least weekly, does not use FB, though one of his sons is in the "church kid" group. Of the 146, 133 allow viewing their friends and my "Friends" page lists them, so it was easy to grab the statistics. Here is a bar chart of their "FB Friend" quantities:

By doubling the size of each category to get the next, I made this a Lognormal analysis. The result is skewed to the heavy end. Note that Dunbar's Number would be in the first of the three bars of about 30 members. The Median is 317, and the rather great number of folks with 1,000 or more "FB Friends" is startling. They must spend a good part of their day scanning their News Feed!

It would not be hard for me to double or triple my numbers. But I am selective whom I "friend". My sociable son, not so much. He has over 600.

I also looked at the face tags in Picasa, where I have about 25,000 photos tagged. Of 738 tags, not all are true names. Some are various kinds of "I don't know" designation, such as "unknown female second cousin" or "Bill in the Rock Club"; there are exactly 100 of these at present. I have 14 groups, such as "HS Friend of Son" (maybe 200 or so kids I'll leave him to sort out later if he chooses) or "Relatives of so-and-so" (several faces from old family reunion pix, say, in 1914). There are 51 various kinds of distant acquaintance, such as President Bush, photographed at long distance from a speech venue, or various people whose face and name I know but we've never met and will likely never meet, possibly because they're dead (Antoine Lavoisier is one of these). And there are 7  such as "baby Tom" or "young Tom" for a few children in the family that I wanted Picasa to be able to better recognize at various ages. That leaves 566 distinct persons that I either know well now, or have in the recent past. Not bad for the family introvert!

This is not just an entertaining book to read, it is a scholarly work, and the endnotes constitute an extra chapters' worth of fascinating reading material in addition to the many, many references. An example: From a note on page 314 about breastfeeding, the author points out that the claims for various health benefits of breastfeeding overlap in a significant way the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and face-to-face interaction between mother and baby. (I find it amazing that less than half of American women breastfeed at all, only half of those keep it up for 3 months, and very few last even 6 months. Much of the blame goes to companies with policies that disallow even unpaid leave for child care longer than 9 weeks. I am so glad my wife was able to nurse our son a full year.)

So, feeling a bit lonely? Nobody's going to come to you. Turn off the video game and find a compatible church or hobby club (My atheist brother belongs to a choir, and this season they are of course practicing the Hallelujah Chorus). Then, every chance you get to meet with one of your groups of pals, turn off the cell phone. It won't help you live longer, but they will.


140 IQ range subhuman said...

has anybody left a comment on this blog in 9 years? or is this entire enterprise just an exercise by one of the outsiders, as grady towers called them.

quickly read a couple years worth of posts on here and saw zero comments total. ouch. lonely process keeping this place going. even on the internet, the outsiders are isolated. you would think the internet would be the solution to most of the stuff towers discussed.

then again, i am of the inferior intelligence class and probably cannot even comprehend what is being discussed on here. that 30 IQ point range barrier and all.

Polymath07 said...

Replying to "140": Not many comments, but I forgot to check the Spam Comment area, and found several from the past few months, so I "not spam"'ed them. This isn't lonely; I write to please myself, and to help me remember what I have read. I hope you keep coming back, 140.

140 IQ range subhuman said...

lol yeah i noticed a bunch of comments suddenly showed up after i posted.