What Opens Your Heart?

Important Research Looks at Emotionally Satisfying Experiences and Quality Relationships.

No, pondering this question is not self-obsession. This is important self-knowledge about what makes us tick, connect and thrive in social settings. As we age our networks change and perhaps shrink; people in our lives move and die and our own physical capabilities to be out in the world change. Our lifeline to well-being could be threatened. We are social beings and that does not change as we age but becomes even more important. In my opinion, the aging process gives us a gift to move from doing to being, and we have the option to make this journey with ourselves, our family and, importantly, a self-selected social network of relationships that matter.

Findings from the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Sightlines Project indicate that “Over the course of our lives, the size of social networks first increases and then decreases (peaking at around age 40-50). When young, people actively seek to expand their social connections, which may help enhance their opportunities in their career and life. As people age, they begin to exhibit a stronger desire to seek meaning in their lives, the urgency of which is partly driven by their realization of the diminishing time left in their lives. Older adults eliminate less-essential relationships and connections and focus more on relationships that bring more meaning and joy in a process known as “social network pruning.” Consequently, older people appear to have smaller but more emotionally rich social networks than younger people. Thus, while the size of one’s network grows smaller, the depth and intensity of those relationships increases”.

Researchers are now working to unlock the many ways positive emotions (from emotionally satisfying relationships) impact physical health as people age. They report an upward-spiral dynamic continually reinforcing the tie between positive emotions and physical health and that this spiral is mediated by people’s perceptions of their positive social connections. Can we direct our social destiny? Yes. We can start by knowing what nourishes us and what does not. What actually makes us feel open to another person and feel good when we are with them? Do we feel heard, seen and valued? Conversely, knowing that it may have negative implications for our health, how do we weed out those relationship that simply don’t feel good?

It’s great to feel a healthy connection to others. We also need to give ourselves permission to “prune” relationships and social networks to make us feel in control of our social destiny and health. As we age, maybe into longevity, let’s take steps to live in a world surrounded by relationships that will sustain us through personal and logistical transitions and increase the possibility of living long and living well.

Deborah Skovron, Director/Creative Director of CircleTalk™ . We engage and start new group conversations and new relationships in any setting where older adults gather. CircleTalk™ trains volunteers and professionals to lead focused activities and discussions with our captivating curriculum. For more information, contact [email protected].

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