How Facebook can keep you alive

There are many ways for you to make the human contacts that will help you live a longer and happier life. This happens to be one of them.

It's hard to make friends, especially as we age.

But a new meta-study shows it's vital.

Researchers at BYU and UNC-Chapel Hill looked at 148 past studies on a variety of topics, over 300,000 participants in all, and matched their social engagement to follow-up mortality.

What they found was that being alone is as dangerous to your health as smoking.

Living alone had the lowest risk correlation. It's the lack of "complex social integration," literally being alone and friendless, that most likely results in premature death. Your risk in that case nearly doubled.

Naturally the major media is all over this. If you're hearing Ringo Starr singing "With a Little Help from my Friends" more in the next few weeks, it's not just because he recently turned 70 and looks fabulous.

But what do we really mean by friends?

My dad appeared, on the surface, to be an awfully social person, with a wife and four kids. Only his immediate family knew how lonely and alone he felt inside. He died at 78 after many years of health problems.

To look at my own life, you might think me a candidate for an early grave. Except for my family, I don't get out much. But I have many, many friends online, some of them quite close and important to me.

Online contacts, in other words, can be deep contacts. It's not about having 10,000 connections on Facebook, however. It's about having some really deep ones.

Much of what is being written about this study downplays the importance of online connections, emphasizing church, work and civic activity instead.

Nothing wrong with that, but the UNC-BYU study is a meta-study, using statistics that were not originally meant to measure social interaction. Thus it leaves a whole lot unsaid. Are people engaged in life more likely to exercise, to eat well, less likely to watch TV or smoke? What type of interaction really leads to longevity?

Deep online connections can cross lines that geography can't. If you're an Idaho liberal, or a Manhattan tea-partier, and politics is important to you, who says a little DailyKos or Freerepublic isn't the right therapy for you? If your church is into lime Jell-o, maybe you need more time with the folks at Gather Food.

Point is we read all the time about how dangerous and nasty the Internet is. Stay off Facebook or that picture of you bobbing for apples (naked) could keep you from ever finding a job. The Internet is filled with porn and rip-offs and stalkers. They say.

But life is like that. The Internet mirrors reality. Nothing that isn't out there in real life is foreign to the Internet.

That includes friendships.

One of my online friends is at the head of this story. Martin Kenneth Bayne was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in the mid-1990s. The only real connections he could make for 15 years were online, yet over that time he got endorsements for his work from, among others, Jimmy Carter, Clint Eastwood and Hillary Clinton.

Over the last 15 years I have regularly heard from Martin via e-mail and phone, often when I least expected it. I helped him with his writing. He helped me with my troubles. I have never met him face-to-face, but I'm proud to say we are truly friends.

He called me some months ago. His Parkinson's is in remission.

My point is there are many ways for you to make the human contacts that will help you live a longer and happier life.

This happens to be one of them.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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