A recent TED talk, ‘The secret to living longer may be your social life’ captured my interest with its promise to share the secrets to a long life. Its conclusions were not only interesting with regards to the holy grail of longevity, but also highlighted an exciting new area of innovation – the human face of digital.
The speaker, psychologist Susan Pinker, drew her conclusions in part from the study of residents of a village in Sardinia, where life expectancy for men and woman is significantly above the world average. In a league table of factors contributing to a long life, the usual suspects were all there: diet, exercise, genetics. However, surprisingly, the top of the league table was reserved for how sociable the centenarians were. In other words, seeing people that you knew and liked daily significantly affected life expectancy – specifically where that ‘seeing’ included eye contact, voice and the ability to truly feel and relate to the person they were with.
The reason is linked to the secretion of neuropeptides in the bloodstream when we form meaningful relationships, which in turn helps to lower stress and has positive physical effects. The use of the word ‘meaningful’ is important, referring to the emotional strength of connections through face to face contact, as opposed to relationships based on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Many studies show that social relationships are important to our health. Pinker supported her findings using studies showing that people with active social lives have higher cancer survival rates than people who are isolated.
Two comments towards the end of the talk sparked further thoughts. Firstly, Pinker reflected that the the face to face human contact so important to a long life was being squeezed by today’s world by text-based communication on digital devices . Does this mean that social media and smartphones will join obesity as as a risk-factor which could make this generation the first to have a shorter life expectancy than its predecessor?
A more positive note was struck by the answer to a question: Were any of the positive effects of human contact replicated by video messaging platforms such as Skype, FaceTime, Google hangouts? Interestingly, Pinker felt they potentially could offer much of the best of both worlds – digital and real – but said there is work to be done in making sure we use them in the right way. For example, eye contact is a fundamental part of human connection, but having the camera positioned at the top of a screen means there is often no real eye contact on a video call. Correcting that would make a real difference to the emotional connection on these calls.
If deeper emotional connections can lead to a longer life and offer a plethora of other benefits, and digital communication can deliver some of those, that surely is one of the most exciting areas for development in digital communication. Why not replace some of our day-to-day text based communication with video chat?Maybe we could develop a new etiquette for voice chat aimed to maximise the emotional connections? In these examples we see an exciting new area for innovation in digital communication, in our social lives and the workplace: that of the human face of digital.