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Prioritizing these three things will improve your life — and maybe even save it

Reporter Colby Itkowitz speaks with Emily Esfahani Smith about happiness on May 1. (Video: The Washington Post)

VANCOUVER — Want to live longer, enjoy life more and actually find that elusive happiness?

Among the dozens of big ideas shared this week at the international TED conference — from a robot that could outperform students on college exams to an ultraviolet light that could kill superbugs — were some simpler, almost obvious, life improvements we should all prioritize to live better lives. While the ideas themselves might not be all that surprising, the explanations for how and why they better your life served as powerful reminders that we might be prioritizing the wrong things, and undervaluing that which makes life worth living.

  • Face-to-face social interaction leads to a longer life

Smoking, drinking, exercise and even heart problems are not predictors of a person’s longevity — a person’s close relationships and social integration were. That’s what psychologist Susan Pinker has discovered in researching the impact that our human connections have on all aspects of our well-being, including our physical health. Those with intimacy in their lives, those with support systems and frequent face-to-face interactions were not only physically and emotionally healthier, but they also lived longer.

It’s why women, who tend to prioritize spending time with their friends more than men,  live an average of six years longer, Pinker said. And it’s not enough to text or email. The actual health benefits of socializing are only achieved through in-person contact, she said.

“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future,” she said.

And it doesn’t even have to be long, close interactions to have an immediate effect. Making eye contact, shaking someone’s hand, giving someone a high-five lowers your cortisone levels and releases dopamine, making you less stressed and giving you a little high, she said. Pinker showed two images of the brain, one of someone conversing in person and another of someone watching a video of a person discussing the same subject. In the brain of the person interacting, regions associated with social intelligence and emotional reward lit up.

“This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits, but a quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to,” Pinker said. “We can do something about this. It’s a biological imperative to know we belong. … Building in-person interactions into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas, bolsters our immune system, sends positive hormones surging through our bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer. I call this building your village, and building it is a matter of life or death.”

  • Knowing when to turn off your smartphone enriches your life

Adam Alter, professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, told a room full of some of the most successful entrepreneurs, scientists and tech innovators in the world about a German company that gives employees the option when they’re on vacation to set their out-of-office response to tell the sender that their email will never be seen because it’s been automatically deleted. The sender can email when the person is back from vacation, or, if it’s a work emergency, contact someone else at the office. The TED audience burst into applause. The idea of a vacation without interruption felt novel.

Alter has studied the impact all our screen time is having on our lives. People who spend time on social networks, dating apps and even online news sites reported being less happy. And the technology has taken away what Alter calls our “stopping cues.” Most things we do for pleasure, like reading a book or watching a movie, have an end. But scrolling on the phone is endless and we don’t know when to break away.

Using a bar graph to illustrate this, Alter showed that in 2007, technology took up a sliver of our precious personal time in a day. In 2017, it took up almost all of it.

Alter found that those who did set finite rules for their technology use — like never using it at the dinner table or putting it on airplane mode when you’re out on the weekends (so you can access the camera but not the Internet) — were able to enjoy life more.

“Life becomes more colorful, richer, you have better conversations, you connect with the person who is there with you,” he said.

  • Chasing meaning, not happiness, is what really matters

The quest for happiness doesn’t make us happy. In fact, Emily Esfahani Smith realized that constantly evaluating our own happiness is actually contributing to feelings of hopelessness and depression. Happiness is a fickle emotion, fleeting, based on a moment or an experience. What’s really making us feel sad is not a lack of happiness, it’s lack of meaning, she said.

Smith, author of the new book “The Power of Meaning,” said that after five years of interviewing hundreds of people, she discovered that meaning can be derived in four forms: belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling.

The first is exactly what it sounds like — prioritizing the people in your life who truly love and care about you. The second is having purpose. Most people find purpose through work because it’s how we feel like we’re adding value or contributing. But, she said, “that also means disengagement at work, unemployment, low labor force participation, these aren’t just economic problems, they are existential ones too. Without something worthwhile to do, people flounder.” So finding something to drive you forward, whether it’s work or something else, is a crucial slice of having meaning.

Transcendence is about finding something that can take you outside of yourself, that can make you feel like you’re part of something bigger. For some that’s art or church, she said. It could be walking in nature or doing yoga.

With storytelling, that’s all about our personal narratives. What is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves?

“We’re the author of our stories,”  she said, “and we can change how we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events.”

Read more Inspired Life from the TED conference:

To solve our post-truth problem, these TED speakers say we have to admit we don’t know everything

The world needs more humanity if it’s going to solve the refugee crisis, activists urge at TED conference

How the traditionally apolitical TED Talks will navigate the unavoidable politics of 2017

Meet the 34-year-old neuroscientist developing a drug to prevent depression and PTSD

Pope Francis gives a surprise TED Talk, calls for a ‘revolution of tenderness’

This Harvard doctor has a plan to save 30 million lives by 2030