Can a Life of Significance Be the Fountain of Youth? Marta Zaraska #67

Warwick Fairfax

May 11, 2021

We’ve all heard that living with your purpose top of mind – what we at Crucible Leadership call a life of significance – leads to a more joyful and impactful life. But did you know it also can lead to a longer life? Author Marta Zaraska makes an eye-opening case for that truth in her best-seller, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100 – a book steeped in science (she studied more than 600 research papers in her research) that points to the health benefits of living life in community and in service to others.  That means those steps you’re taking to overcome your crucibles — deepening authentic relationships, growing in character and kindness, leaning into the power of meditation and prayer — can lower your mortality rate more effectively than a fad diet or obsessing over whether you’re getting your 10,000 steps in every day.

To learn more about Marta Zaraska and Growing Young, visit www.zaraska.com

Highlights

  • The challenge of switching to writing professionally in English (8:31)
  • What led her to write Growing Young (9:59)
  • The importance of strong relationships and purpose to living longer (12:13)
  • How social indicators can lower mortality rates more than diet and exercise along (17:45)
  • The effects of cultural change on building and maintaining relationships (22:22)
  • The fascinating Roseto effect and what it says about living longer (25:30)
  • The longevity benefit of committed romantic relationships (28:13)
  • The “gnawing parasite of loneliness” (31:29)
  • The power of ikigai (34:37)
  • How the pandemic has changed our search for meaning for the better — and why it matters (43:22)
  • How even horrific crucibles can bring greater meaning and purpose to life (48:12)
  • Key episode takeaways (55:48)

Transcript

Warwick F:
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Marta Z:
I really believe that most people can find in their jobs and what they’re doing, some kind of sense of meaning. But you have to really try, you have to spend some time to think about those things, what could it be? Can it be your family or maybe your community involvement or even when we’re talking about kindness, which is related to purpose and meaning. Research shows that acts of kindness can lower levels of our stress hormone, cortisol and generally change our gene expression.

Marta Z:
But the kind acts they are talking about, are usually quite small. It doesn’t require some huge, donating $1 million to charity. You can for instance just open doors for someone to let them ahead of you. You can let people ahead of you in traffic. You can pick up trash in your neighborhood. Just really small things. And yet they make all the difference. And I think it’s the same thing with purpose. Of course it’s great if your purpose in life is to save the world from climate change, awesome, but it can also be something small, very small steps and it’s all about shifting your perspective and just thinking about those things in the first place.

Gary S:
We’ve all heard that living with your purpose top of mind, what we call a life of significance, leads to a more joyful and impactful life. But did you know it also can lead to a longer life? Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show and the Communications Director for Crucible Leadership. On this week’s episode, Warwick talks with Marta Zaraska, the best-selling author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. A book steeped in science that points to the health benefits of living life on purpose in service to others. Among the eye-opening facts she uncovers: volunteering lowers your mortality risk by 22%. Optimism can prolong your life by almost 10 years and supplements and fitness trackers aren’t likely to do as much for the length and quality of your life as simply living in close knit community will do for it.

Warwick F:
Marta, thank you so much for being here. When I read, I think it was a couple of weeks or so ago, the article in the Washington Post that talked about purpose and how having purpose could help increase longevity, I thought, “Boy, that makes sense intuitively, but I haven’t really read an article and now a book that actually talks about that from a science perspective.” So that’s fascinating, because at Crucible Leadership we’re all about helping folks bounce back from their crucible setbacks and failures to lead a life of significance. Which we define as a life on purpose, dedicated to serving others. So that right in our wheelhouse and what our listeners will be curious about. So, Marta, thank you, again, so much for being here. Before we get into the book, tell us a little bit about how you became a science writer and the background? Because I know, I think you’re Canadian living in France but I believe you were born in Poland. So tell us a little bit about that journey about your background and how you came to be a science writer?

Marta Z:
I mean, I’ve been a journalist for over two decades now, so it’s been a while. First as a foreign affairs journalist I was working in Poland for several major publications there. I used to write about some things like social issues in Africa, I traveled a lot as well, places in Africa especially. And so, then as a very young adult, I moved out of Poland, I moved to Canada and so a few years later I also became Canadian. But I started writing in English at some point as well and decided that maybe traveling to Africa and very dangerous places generally, wasn’t going very well in line with starting a family.

Marta Z:
So, I decided to switch to a different type of writing, science writing. Although it’s connected to my previous work as well, because when I was writing about environment issues in Africa or some social issues, water shortages, it was also very much based in science already and I’m also married to a scientist, so it was a natural change of course for me. But I’ve been doing it for many, many years as well right now, so, writing, as you’ve mentioned before, for Scientific American, the Washington Post especially, and some other publications that is Los Angeles Times, et cetera, that you’ve mentioned, I’m sorry for all my editors in those newspapers, for putting them there, New Scientist et cetera.

Warwick F:
Wow, that’s amazing. So, now did you meet your husband in Poland or Canada or…

Marta Z:
Poland. I mean, we married crazy young, so yeah.

Warwick F:
And speaking of that, you have one or two kids?

Marta Z:
One, one daughter yeah, she’s eight.

Warwick F:
One daughter, okay. I’m sure it’s fascinating to see as she grows up, all of the different tendencies and changes. It’s one thing to read about people in scientific journals and papers, but then you get to observe a person too. And that must be pretty interesting, I imagine?

Marta Z:
I mean, that’s how it feels in a certain way, as I said, we are both Polish born naturalized Canadians and we live in France right now. So we’re actually raising a French person which adds that additional twist to the whole parenting.

Warwick F:
So what led you to move to France? Out of curiosity.

Marta Z:
Helping out with my husband’s PhD and we stayed afterwards.

Warwick F:
Okay. So, I imagine your daughter’s probably, obviously fluent in French and I guess she probably knows a bit of English and Polish does she?

Marta Z:
I mean, she’s trilingual, so she’s absolutely fluent in both French and English with no difference and her Polish is slightly worse than English and French, but she also can communicate fluently.

Warwick F:
I’m sure with the grandparents and all, that would be important, so…

Gary S:
That is tremendously impressive. I am barely, many days, unilingual, so…

Warwick F:
Yeah. That’s awesome. So, I want to get into the book, but I think one of the challenges you mentioned was coming from Poland, writing for a Polish language journal, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to get published in papers such as the Washington Post and writing another language is not the easiest thing, I’m sure, especially when you’re writing scientific articles. I mean, I did a bit of French in school and I can probably order a meal or get a room for the night, but there’s no way I could talk in French about some scientific subject. That would be way beyond me, so, that must not have been easy, I imagine?

Marta Z:
I mean the funny part is, I can not write in Polish anything about science at all, so, it is an interesting but it’s extremely difficult for me. But, yeah, I mean switching to English was a challenge, a big one definitely. And so to do so, me and my husband at some point many years ago, we’ve actually decided to switch to speaking English at home, which is something that many people find extremely weird. That we are both Polish and we speak English at home and our daughter speaks English with us at home. But from both our work’s perspective it was vital because we knew we were staying in the West and to be able to write properly in English, I had to think in English and to think in English, I had to speak in English.

Marta Z:
So that’s what we’ve decided to do and yes, breaking into the Western market is certainly a challenge and unfortunately even the top credits from Poland are not very much appreciated usually, so, I got a lot of rejection letters before I managed to break into… My first publication was Globe and Mail in Canada and so I really appreciated the chance that the Editor there, in the international section took on me. So, yeah, that was extremely challenging and it took a lot of being very, very stubborn and sending my emails and letters over and over and over and over and over again. I guess I’m pretty stubborn, so… And then once you write your first Washington Post article, then suddenly the door is open and things become much, much easier.

Warwick F:
Well, the power of persistence, a very important quality. Anybody that’s succeeded, I can’t think of anybody that hasn’t been persistent. I don’t know if persistence adds years to your life, but it should, so… I’m trying to remember if I read that, I’m not sure, but… So talk a bit about what led you to write Growing Young, because I know you’ve written another book, but why this book? I mean, was there anything that’s linked to your background, family, any reason why this whole growing young concept was fascinating to you?

Marta Z:
I mean, it came quite naturally out of my writing, because I write mostly about biological sciences, so everything concerning health, nutrition, psychology and also longevity. So all these topics I’ve been covering them in my articless previously, so there weren’t any surprising twists there. And also, in my private life, I’ve been quite interested in longevity and health and I think the book started basically, the idea for the book was at first to be a parenting book, actually. So I felt, as a mother I had this wish that my daughter would live healthy and long and I was thinking, “How can I help her achieve that? How can I assure that she’ll live a healthy and long life?” So I started gathering data and reading articles and journals and talking to experts, trying to figure out what makes people live long. And so, of course, there was the diet and exercise, but at the same time I started coming across more and more research showing that this social side of health.

Marta Z:
So whether we are socially integrated, whether we have purpose in life, meaning, whether we are optimistic, conscientious, all these things matter at least as much for health and longevity as diet and exercise. And then I realized also that there was something much bigger here than just a parenting book, because this applies to everyone not just for making sure that my daughter life long and healthy and for children in general, but also, for us parents and grandparents, for everybody, right? And this was a huge point that seemed to be missing completely from the discussions we were having in the media about what makes people live long and healthy. And this is why I decided to do even more research and I ended up reading over 600 research papers to write this book. Hence that was how Growing Young came about.

Warwick F:
It’s interesting, because as you write in the book, it’s easier to measure the effect of diet, exercise, nutrition probably scientifically than the things you write about, committed relationships, purpose, the socialization with friends. I mean, it’s probably a little… It feels a little more fuzzy, maybe it’s not as fuzzy, but that’s the popular concept. I know there’s a couple of things you write in your book, which again, I found absolutely fascinating. From everything from marriage to relationships to loneliness, so many things. You wrote a couple of things that talked about your purpose in the book. You wrote one comment that says, “I wrote Growing Young out of the believe that in the deluge of reductionist wellness news, we’ve somehow lost the big picture. Ignoring the things that matter the most for our longevity, relationships, emotions and the psyche.”

Warwick F:
And then another one you write, “My goal in writing this book was to help you fundamentally rethink how you approach your health. Whether you might be putting too much effort into strategies that don’t work well, supplements, fitness trackers and not enough into those that truly matter, your love life, your friendships, your life’s meaning.” And obviously you’re not saying that diet and exercise and health are not important, I mean, I’m sure, reading your book you obviously, you and your husband and daughter take that all seriously. But talk how there’s almost a fascination and obsession, my words not yours, with the latest diet, the latest fitness track, the latest treadmill machine. We’re just so focused on measuring pounds and calories and body fat, but yet we don’t really think too much of some of these other things such as relationships, emotions and such. So talk about the obsession the world, certainly the Western world has with that versus these other factors that seem to be pretty important?

Marta Z:
I mean we certainly are obsessed. When you think about it, half of all American adults take at least one dietary supplement every single day and the sales of all these fitness trackers are absolutely booming and so, I believe what’s happening are two things. So, for one, we find it comforting in a way, to measure things. We like simple solutions, so if you pop this miracle supplement your telomeres will become longer. If you measure your HRV rate you will know exactly how old you are. If you take 10,000 steps exactly per day, then you’ll be healthy.

Marta Z:
So we really like this kind of simple solution, this is what you do and this is the results you’re going to get. But I also think it’s fueled by marketing and sales, basically of all the companies that are selling us those products. Because why do we keep hearing about miracle diets and supplements and exercise gadgets so much and so little about the impact of friendship and social inclusion, happiness, purpose on health? Even though these things have been established in science for a very long time. And I believe the reason is exactly that when we are talking about diet and exercise, there are products that are being sold to us. All these supplements, it is a huge, multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.

Marta Z:
The fitness trackers, there is someone making money on all those things. So they’re being advertised, they’re being publicized by influencers on social media. So this is why we hear about all those things. Whereas when we’re talking about purpose in life, it’s hard to make money, nobody’s making money on you finding meaning in your life. So, this is why you don’t hear about it, you don’t see it on Instagram, because it’s just not making money for them.

Warwick F:
Right. Can you imagine, “Here’s this magic pill, have this pill for three weeks and you won’t be lonely. Have this other pill and you’ll have a happy marriage.” It’d be tough to sell that one.

Marta Z:
Yeah. It doesn’t exists.

Warwick F:
No, I mean, it’s funny, we are in my family, somewhat emblematic of what you’re talking about. I mean, I’m very blessed, my wife cooks very well and goes to health food places like Whole Foods, a huge US place. So we eat organic stuff and yes, I got to confess, we do have the odd supplement. I have to ask, I hope it doesn’t have any lead in it like some of the supplements you mentioned in your book. But yeah, I mean I like to think we’re also focused on purpose too. It is interesting-

Gary S:
I have to jump in and say, I feel really bad that I said at the outset off air that I’m keeping track of time on my Fitbit. So, I know how long we’re going, so I’m just going to sit over here and not say anything and sort of shrink back.

Warwick F:
Yeah. And perhaps not look at your Fitbit too much, right?

Gary S:
Yes, correct. Yeah.

Warwick F:
So, I mean… But what you say is there’s so many interesting takes, I mean, I want to get to purpose here and Ikigai, which I’m sure I’ll mispronounce, a little bit. Because, that purpose is so much of what we talk about here at Crucible Leadership. But there’s so many interesting stats you have, you’ve got a great chart in there that list a whole bunch of dieting things you can do and exercise and then everything from relationships to having purpose and social networks. But there’s one quote that I think you have in there that really sums up everything and compares some key dietary and exercise components with more of the social aspects, and this whole paragraph I found fascinating.

Warwick F:
So here’s what you wrote, “Here’s some stats, eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day versus zero, lowers the risk of mortality by 26%. Sticking to the famed Mediterranean diet means a 20 to 21% lower risk of dying within the next few years. The number for many social factors are much higher, the happy marriage equals a 49% lower mortality risk. Living with someone, even just a roommate, as opposed to living alone, 19 to 32%. Having a large network of friends, 45%. Other mindset and social indicators have effects similar to that of the super-healthy eating style. Volunteering lowers mortality risk by 22%, more or less as much as following the Mediterranean diet. If you were to add everything together, combining a good marriage, strong friendships, feelings of belonging and so forth, you create a complex measure of social integration, or something that we call the essence of the Roseto effect,” which some town in Pennsylvania in the early ’60s where people were super close with each other, “you would get a whopping 65% reduction in mortality.”

Warwick F:
I mean, that’s just staggering. Here’s all of these things from Mediterranean, fruit and vegetables, but you compare that with things like marriage, volunteering, social networks, it’s not to say you shouldn’t do that, but it has as big an effect. I mean that was astounding to me, those statistics. I mean it’s mind blowing.

Marta Z:
I mean, there was also a disclaimer after. And I think it’s quite important to mention that so these numbers are coming from very different studies with very varying methodologies. So I don’t want people to get hung up on the numbers. “It’s exactly 21% over here, it is exactly 26%.” It’s just about giving a rough idea about how important these things are. But it doesn’t mean that you should be comparing them exactly, because I said they come from different studies. But in general research shows that social integration is at least as important as diet and exercise and perhaps even more important than diet and exercise. Even though diet and exercise are of course, very important for your health and longevity. But these things are maybe even more.

Marta Z:
So in the perfect scenario you’ll be eating healthy and exercising and making sure you’re socially integrated, that you’re involved in your community, that you have purpose in life. But also when we talk about diet and exercise, once again, it’s not this obsessive type of diet and exercise when we’re searching for all the best miracle foods and diets and eating Manuka honey sprinkled with Goji berries and popping all the possible telomere enhancing supplements. It’s simple, it’s just avoiding junk food and too much sugar, eating your fruits and veggies, which can be perfectly fine, carrots and apples and pears, there’s nothing wrong with them. They are very healthy and good for you. So, simple but still very important.

Warwick F:
No, absolutely. And I grew up in Australia but live in the US now. My wife’s American, we’ve lived here about 30 years. There are some comparisons that I found fascinating. You talk about eating at the dinner table together and in France, I think you mentioned people in their 30s and 40s, 61% eat with their families at night compared to 24% of Americans. That just makes so much sense, I mean, I’m blessed, we have three kids in their 20s and because of COVID they’re all living with us, and pretty much every night we do eat together. I mean that’s the way I grew up, in Australia we always ate together. I mean once in a while on the weekend maybe we’ll watch TV, but, yeah, that sense of just being together as you eat maybe again, Australian culture is different than American. So, when I was growing up, I can’t ever remember eating food in the car.

Warwick F:
That was anathema, it’s just having moved here and got married, I had to realize people do do that, which I thought was somewhat barbaric. I’m sure anybody in France would agree that eating in the car is barbaric, I don’t know about Poland but certainly the French would certainly believe it’s… But yeah, that sense of just… And often we’ll be talking around the dinner table and time will be getting on and I’ll want to wash the dishes and relax and we’re still talking. And I’m not that impatient, I like socializing. It’s not a five minute meal, I mean it’s and hour, hour and a half, I mean it’s every night. So, I guess we’re unusual. But talk about people don’t do that that much certainly in America, maybe Canada too, so, there are certain cultural things that have just changed in the last 30, 40 years that are not for the good, don’t you think?

Marta Z:
I mean, certainly. I lived in Canada for several years, obviously, and I got used to eating in my car as well, and eating while walking down the street and then I moved to France and I discovered but it’s a horrible faux pas to eat in your car or walking down the street, you just don’t do that. People will be looking at you like, “You’re a crazy person.” So, I would never do that right now and one time I was somewhere away for work and I actually had to eat a sandwich rushing from one meeting to another walking down the street. And I felt so horrible, I actually… I had the sandwich in my handbag and I was sneaking like a kid in school, eating during class. And it’s true that for the French, eating at a table is extremely important. In all Mediterranean cultures, for instance, my daughter here in a French school, she has a two hour break for lunch and for at least an hour they sit at a table and eat.

Marta Z:
They’re having an appetizer, then a second appetizer and the main dish then cheese platter and then the dessert. So, it’s something extremely important for the culture here. And this is what I also write about in Growing Young, that we often focus so much on the Mediterranean diet in terms of what kind of nutrients it contains. How much olive oil people are taking in when they’re eating a Mediterranean diet, how many grams of tomatoes or how much wine they’re drinking and calculating everything in this reductionist way, exactly. Whereas, an extremely important part of the Mediterranean diet is actually how they eat. It’s not only about what they eat, it’s important, but it’s not only that, it’s also how they eat. In Spain and Italy and France in those Mediterranean cultures you eat with other people. You eat slowly, you take your time, you talk, this is extremely important. So if you eat the same diet, the Mediterranean diet, in your car alone, it won’t have the same beneficial effects for your health. So, there is a huge part that we are missing in North America, I think.

Warwick F:
Yeah. And you make a very good point, I mean as a science writer you obviously want to understand cause and effect accurately. And so in some of these Blue Zones, Sardinia which… Island off of Italy, you study, “Boy look how the people live long and they’re healthy.” Well, yes, and they do eat, I’m sure, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, salads. But they probably eat amongst friends, they have social clubs, they help their friends and neighbors. A lot of the things you talk about in this book they do as part of their culture. And so how do you figure out what’s the diet and what’s some of the social factors? I mean, it’s probably not the easiest thing in the world to isolate. But while it’s hard to isolate, you can’t discount… You can’t say, “Oh, it’s all the Mediterranean diet.” I mean that’s a good point, but, I mean, I’ve seen documentaries on Blue Zones and they talk about some of these other things but it seems like the focus is on the diet, not on the other.

Marta Z:
I mean, for instance real life experiments was what happened and something you’ve mentioned earlier on, the Roseto. Roseto was a town in Pennsylvania that was actually settled by immigrants from Italy. And when they came over to Pennsylvania, they actually abandoned their Mediterranean diet very, very fast, unfortunately, and started eating a typical American diet, very greasy diet with lots of sausages and meat and they drank a lot of alcohol, a lot of beer. So they were definitely not eating healthy, they were also smoking a lot. And at the same time, this Roseto became famous because nobody were dying of heart attacks there. This attracted attention of scientists and doctors back in the 1960s. It was very far apart from all the surrounding areas, even though they had the same health care, same water system, similar social profiles, horrible diet, once again. And yet people were living much longer, I think their mortality rates were 30% lower, which is huge.

Marta Z:
So the doctors started studying the people there, they discovered it’s not in their genes either, there was nothing in there. But what was special about this town was that people there brought this exactly Mediterranean culture with them. So they were extremely social, they were constantly visiting, everybody knew all their neighbors. They were having huge backyard parties where everybody was invited. They were taking care of their front yards so the town would look pretty for everybody. They had 22 civic organizations in a town of 2,000 people, which was unbelievable. And so, scientists concluded that this was what was making them healthy, and this was named the Roseto effect. And also what the scientists did, they predicted back then in 1960 that were the Rosetans ever to abandon their ways and follow the usual American dream, the effects would disappear.

Marta Z:
And this is unfortunately what has happened in the ’80s and ’90s when the next generation started to move to the suburbs, work longer hours to be able to afford bigger houses, started driving in their bigger cars and they stopped visiting, they stopped having these community relationships. They stopped taking part in the civic organizations, and unfortunately, by now, their health just is the American average. This protective effect and their amazing cardiovascular health has completely disappeared.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, that’s very instructive. They were eating an unhealthy diet, but yet, they were living long, but once they abandoned that tight-knit social lifestyle, their health changed. That would seem to be very determinative. One other thing, before we get to purpose, I found fascinating is you talk about committed romantic relationship, which obviously could be marriage. But you differentiate that between cohabiting where there’s not a life-long commitment. Obviously marriage in theory, it’s clearer, but whether it’s marriage or some alternative where you go in there thinking, “We’re doing this for life.” The fact that it lowers mortality by 49%, I mean, even with a room mate, I think I read somewhere maybe 20% or something, I mean, that’s just staggering, the effect of a committed long-term relationship such as marriage. So talk about why that makes such a difference?

Marta Z:
I mean, it boils down to our sense of security in the most basic form. So if you think about it, we are social apes. So we evolved to be with our tribe and this is where we feel the safest and this is where our bodies function the best. And so, our fight or flight response, so for instance, our HPA axis or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, this stress response that activated back in evolutionary past when you stumbled up on a lion on the savanna, and today is activated by anything from your mortgage worries to traffic jams, this functions the best when we are with others. Basically we feel safe when we are with other people. And when you are in a committed relationship like that, the committed part is important because you know that the other person will be there for you for better or for worse. And then all the stress responses can function better because you know there is some support. You are not alone.

Marta Z:
And so all the biological processes that’s carrying on when we are stressed from different expression of genes related to our inflammation levels to antiviral response to cancer progression, all these kind of things function better when we feel safe. So this is part of it. The other part of it is also for instance that we exchange microbes with other people. So, we know that we exchange microbes with our friends, with our family, but in particular with our romantic partners, because we touch, because we kiss, and the more diverse people have their gut microbes, generally, the better their health functions. There are also other connections, there are social hormones that we have like oxytocin and serotonin for instance, that get released when we are touching, when we are talking, when we are looking deeply into each others’ eyes. When we are getting old, these warm feelings of trust and connection but also that have, down stream, very biological effects on our bodies.

Marta Z:
So for instance, oxytocin has antiinflammatory effects, serotonin has effects on the liver, endorphins are a natural painkiller. So we have all these hormones that, at the one hand, are acting as the social connection hormones and then on the other hand, have very direct biological effects on our body. Including allowing gut microbiome, everything is connected and talking, all these two-way pathways between our brain and gut and all the hormones interacting the best and working the best when we are feeling safe, connected and that we can trust people around us.

Gary S:
And the flip side of what you were talking about, and Warwick’s question about how committed relationships, friendships, those kind of things help you, help longevity, chapter five in your book, deals with the negative side of that, the lack of that. That’s called the Gnawing Parasite of Loneliness. Explain a little bit about, I mean, we especially in America, we can hear a lot about feeling lonely and there’s the connection quote—unquote that comes from some of our electronic ability to interact with one-another. But studies, I think, have shown that, that isn’t really connection. What is the effect of loneliness on what you just described? Right, the absence of all of those things? What does that do to us?

Marta Z:
Yeah, so loneliness is the flip side of it. So you have all these systems activated so, for instance, we know that people who are lonely, they have shorter telomeres so those protective caps at your ends of chromosomes that take part in aging they have different gene expression when it comes to counter progression or negative they have more inflammation levels they have worse antiviral response they even respond worse to vaccinations. So, there are lots of things that are happening when we are lonely and this is already becoming more and more recognized by health authorities around the world, for instance, in the UK they now have a ministry for loneliness because they know that this is costing the public health care system money, and a lot of money. There were even some calculation how much exactly, I don’t remember the figures, but they were very high. Also, in Manitoba in Canada is a ministry for senior loneliness.

Marta Z:
So, they’re becoming recognized that it’s a really big problem for our health. And it is true that the online connection doesn’t give us the same things, which of course, brings us the pandemic and a lot of people are asking me these days, “Are we doomed? Are we going to all live shorter because we are not connecting now? And is it really only bad for our health?” And whereas it’s definitely not good for our health to be separated and not being able to connect in our natural, normal ways with other people, on the other hand, when scientists study social inclusion and loneliness, the questions they usually ask people are, “Are there any people out there on whom you can count? Is there anybody out there who would bring you soup if you were sick? Is there anybody out there whom you could call and talk about your problems?”

Marta Z:
And the thing is, even though we’re right now isolating these things haven’t disappeared. So if you had friends like that, they can still bring you the soup and drop it at your doorstep, even if you can not meet them in person, you can still pick up the phone and call them. So I don’t think this is the same kind of loneliness that researchers are talking about in the research papers. Because they are talking about chronic loneliness so that you really do not have people like that. There is nobody who would bring you some medicines if you were sick. There is nobody who will drive you to the airport. There’s nobody who you can call. And this is when it’s problematic.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, that’s fascinating. But another thing… A lot of things that I found fascinating, you talk about the power of meditation, different religious traditions, different philosophies such as Viyoga and maybe it’s a way of controlling, regulating emotions, feelings. You mentioned an example of somebody that could have a root canal, I think it was, and through meditation, was able to deal with the pain which I find fascinating. And I’m a person of faith so I think of prayer, at least from my perspective, when I try and relate it to what you talk about, prayer and meditation, and it’s just fascinating how in different religious traditions they tell you how to meditate or how to pray.

Warwick F:
And some of the ways that you do that actually makes some degree of sense. It’s like some people analyze in great detail the Lord’s Prayer, which anybody in the Christian tradition, like it or not, have to recite. But when you analyze the different aspects of it, from almost like a meditative perspective, there are things like focusing on not yourself, but some other higher power. Something external. There’s realizing maybe there’s some higher power in control, that’s assertive, there’s focusing anybody that’s serious about prayer will tell you, don’t go to God with your laundry list, that is a quote—unquote wrong way to pray. Focus on praying for other people. So as I read meditation, I could really… And there’s some of these traditions I can translate it in terms of prayer, it was very similar conceptually. So talk about how whether it’s prayer, meditation, different religious traditions, how they help you regulate your psyche and in some ways also add to longevity. What’s the relationship between all of that?

Marta Z:
I mean, so generally thinking about, exactly, something outside of yourself, so that’s what I write about in Growing Younger, is looking outwards, right? Not only inside yourself, “What I’m eating? What I’m ingesting? How many steps I take?” That looking how you can be helpful? How you can add something to the community? How you can be kind? How you can be better? And this is all, beside the prize when I write about kindness and empathy and volunteering for instance, it has huge impact on health, and generally caring for other people. Also meaning and purpose, it’s also about looking outside of yourself at the bigger picture of how you can be helpful. The last chapter of my book I write about Japan, and I traveled there to talk to people, researchers and also some centenarians about longevity and one extremely important part of longevity research and longevity conversation in Japan, is Ikigai so this purpose in life, meaning in life, reason for living.

Marta Z:
And it’s so important for them that even their ministry of health actually when they are talking about stuff to help longevity, they actually talk about Ikigai as much as they talk about diet and exercise. So it’s truly recognized as really boosting health and there is plenty of research showing it lowers your risk, for example, for cardiovascular problems and other health problems and general. And Ikigai it’s exactly about contributing something to others. Sometimes I ask in interviews in the West for instance, can golfing be my Ikigai? And generally the answer is unfortunately not, it has to be something outside of yourself. No matter how small. So for instance, the Japanese people I talked with, they told that their Ikigai is taking care of their grandchildren, or making sure their front yard looks pretty so the neighbors can enjoy it.

Marta Z:
This is also why many Japanese people take on something they call silver hair jobs. This is when they are already post retirement age, but they decide to take on very simple, easy jobs, usually part-time, not to make money, but to be still involved in something. To be giving back to the community, so they can be public space gardeners, they can be helping children cross on the way to school, they can be doing things like that. And they usually say, “We do it because of Ikigai.” So they can feel needed, they feel involved, they feel they’re giving back. And this is exactly what’s so powerful in both kindness and finding meaning when it comes to longevity and health.

Warwick F:
I think it’s fascinating what you’re saying, Marta, because in Ikigai the focus is obviously, outward focused. It’s caring for their neighbors, their grandkids. It’s not some internally-focused purpose. I mean that’s when we talk about in Crucible Leadership, a life of significance, which we view as the goal more than success. Not that success is wrong and you write about this, I’m sure I read it there somewhere but from our perspective significance is a life on purpose dedicated to serving others. Now what that could be could be a very different things, depends on your values, your perspective, what’s on your heart.

Warwick F:
But the fact that it seems like in Ikigai… And you visited a number of different places one, Matakaoa in Nagano province, which I guess is where they had the ’98 Winter Olympics which seemed to be one of the hubs of this, I think you write that men live longer there than the whole of Japan, 82.2 years, 10 years longer than some folks in the US. As you visited these towns, and you talk about what you saw, that it’s really focused on others, right? It was not… I’m not against self-actualization, but it was other-focused. That was really the key to Ikigai, right? It wasn’t just making my dreams, my, my, my this. It was more the community.

Marta Z:
Yeah. I mean, definitely among the older population because there’s another thing, Japan is changing very fast, right? So this is also what researchers are very much worried about, that even though they are now the longest living nation on the planet, this is because of culture and values that they’ve had previous generations. But whether in 40, 50 years Japan still will be such a long lived nation is another question because the younger people is changing very much. So they’re much more consumption-oriented, they are much more following western values and so this is disappearing. But definitely when you look at the older people, they do have those beliefs, they really do look outwards. They really care about their community, how their village or town square looks like, about helping others. They do those silver hair jobs, it’s actually very, very common in Japan, this is not some kind of exception for crazy people. This is actually mainstream, so, certainly these values this made them such a long lived nation. But if they change, then this will no longer continue.

Warwick F:
And I almost feel like even in the West, some of these things are beginning to creep in. Somebody wrote a book a number of years ago, Halftime, which is the first half of your life, maybe you’re successful and then second half is for significance. I think all our life should be significance but that’s another discussion. But I think more and more, even younger people, they want purpose and meaning. If there are two jobs, one pays slightly better, 10% better but you just feel like a small cog in a machine, you don’t feel like you’re treated well, and there’s no purpose or meaning, you probably won’t want it. More and more companies are trying to say, in America I can think of some examples like Southwest Airlines the most successful, probably best run airline. Their whole mission was to make travel affordable to connect families.

Warwick F:
That was their reason for being. So, if you join that, it was like, “Well, that’s a purpose in life outside of yourself that you can believe in.” Who wouldn’t want to make, especially 20 years ago, when airline travel is not cheap, but it was much more expensive in days gone by, who wouldn’t want to help families get together through affordable travel? So, some of the smart companies, at least I observe, are drifting towards, because their employees want it, younger people want purpose and meaning. So do you see, I don’t know if there’s any data on this, but do you see some of that even in the West, maybe it’s not because of living longer that there’s a desire for meaning and purpose in life and that might be a lot of different things, it’s not organized religion or anything, but there is a sense that people yearn for purpose there’s almost a growth in that desire. Do you see that at all in the West?

Marta Z:
I mean, I’ve heard about it, I haven’t seen hard data on intergenerational differences. I’ve definitely seen data on how the pandemic has changed our search for meaning for the better. In general when times are tough, humans start to look for purpose and meaning and there are several surveys right now showing that many people in the pandemic are looking more for purpose and meaning than they were before. And I think this is a very good change, both from society’s perspective, our mental health perspective and also from our health and longevity perspective. So, it’s certainly good news that it’s shifting our focus and making us look at those things a little bit more.

Gary S:
This is a perfect time to inject this bit of information, Marta, that you said in your article in the Washington Post that got Warwick excited to have you on the show. You indicated that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention four out of 10 Americans haven’t yet managed to find purpose in their lives. And I did, just before we hopped on this call, I did a quick survey of four in 10 Americans on Google, just to see what else four in 10 Americans have done.

Gary S:
And here’s the interesting thing, I’m not a big statistics guy, I’m a word guy not a number guy, but it seems like four in 10 tends to be the figure that’s used for things that aren’t good, right? So four in 10 Americans, for instance, have no idea have no idea how credit scores work, okay? Four in 10 Americans are now obese, that’s germane to this conversation. Four in 10 Americans from a study in 2015 breathe polluted air and then my favorite one, which is not good, is four in 10 Americans said that they would rather give up their dog than give up their phone.

Marta Z:
Oh my goodness. That’s bad.

Gary S:
That’s terrible. And it goes exactly against what we have been talking about. So I bring that to you to say, yes, if people are anecdotally, you’re hearing people are moving toward more of that, why is it so hard still that 40% are still having a hard time finding that purpose and what, based on your research maybe, is a tip or two you could give them to help get them in the right direction to find what we would call, a life of significance?

Marta Z:
I mean, it’s just spending time on it. I think people just don’t put it on their schedule to just sit down without looking at their phones and just think about, “What’s my purpose and meaning?” And I believe anybody can find it, it can be found everywhere. There was this one fascinating study I’ve read about hospital workers, and it was actually about the cleaning staff of hospitals and some of them considered their jobs absolutely horrible, they were like, “Oh, it’s horrible, I’m cleaning the toilets. It sucks, it’s a bad job. I don’t like it.” And so on, but there was also a small part of those hospital workers who actually said that they loved their jobs because they give them amazing sense of meaning. And the reason for that was that they had a different perspective on what they were doing.

Marta Z:
So, they didn’t consider themselves as just people who cleaned toilets, they considered themselves as people who are helping the patients get better and the doctors and nurses to work better and generally to help the hospital function and bring people back to health. They felt that cleaning the floor was keeping the germs away, clean toilets was making it more pleasant for the patients. So just by shifting the focus, they made exactly the same job suddenly really good and giving them purpose and meaning. So I really believe that most people can find in their jobs and what can find in their jobs and what they’re doing, some kind of sense of meaning. But you have to really try, you have to spend some time to think about those things, what could it be? Can it be your family or maybe your community involvement or anything. Even when we’re talking about kindness, which is related to purpose and meaning. Research shows that acts of kindness can lower levels of our stress hormone, cortisol and generally change our gene expression. But the kind acts they are talking about, they’re usually quite small.

Marta Z:
It doesn’t require some huge, donating $1 million to charity. You can for instance just open doors for someone to let them ahead of you. You can let people ahead of you in traffic. You can pick up trash in your neighborhood. Just really small things. And yet they make all the difference. And I think it’s the same thing with purpose. Of course it’s great if your purpose in life is to save the world from climate change, awesome, but it can also be something small, very small steps and it’s all about shifting your perspective and just thinking about those things in the first place.

Warwick F:
One other related thing on purpose I find fascinating, I think you write it in your article and in the book is, when, as we say, you go through crucible experiences, sometimes there can be greater meaning and purpose. You write about World War II there was a greater sense of purpose, I think, in France than almost any other time since or something. There’s a sense of, “We’re fighting against Nazi Germany and the resistance and many acts of heroism. I think in your article you talk about Viktor Frankl the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor that hypothesized that higher purpose gives people a will to stay alive. And it’s horrific, the experiences. Talk about how sometimes nobody want’s to go through crucible experiences but sometimes our purpose in life or our purpose can come amidst very challenging circumstances?

Marta Z:
So I had this other article in the Washington Post the post-traumatic growth and this is a phenomenon recognized in psychology as something sometimes comes after post-traumatic stress disorder. Which of course, is a very bad thing to happen to you when you have this kind of traumatic experience. But for 13% of the people research is still uncertain for how many, depends on various factors, they can actually experience growth. So they consider themselves as stronger and more connected to other people and generally better off then they would otherwise have been if this traumatic event has not happened to them. Which is absolutely fascinating and this research has been done on war prisoners on victims of hurricanes and earthquakes and really people who have traumatic experiences.

Marta Z:
And yet if they manage to, especially if they manage to talk through it with other people, if they manage find, exactly purpose and meaning perhaps in the experience they can emerge even stronger than they would’ve otherwise been. Which, for me, it really gives me hope that even if something really, really bad happens, there can be still something positive perhaps coming out of it. Especially now that we are living in this pandemic and we know from previous studies on the first SARS epidemic that a lot of healthcare workers and people who were hospitalized, they experience PTSD but there are also emerging studies showing that there were also people experiencing post-traumatic growth after the SARS pandemic. So there are potentially some silver linings here.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, as we sum up, what fascinated me about your book and the article was just we talk a lot to our listeners about how you bounce back from crucibles. It could be your fault or not your fault, failure, setbacks and as Gary always says at the end of the podcast, crucibles don’t have to be the end of your story. They can be the beginning of exciting new chapter. And what I like about what you write in your book is, you provide really a roadmap, in a sense, I mean, it’s not necessarily your purpose, but you write a roadmap of how to recover from crucible experiences just by following the data.

Warwick F:
By obviously finding purpose and as you find purpose you want to do it in community because you’re going to need support, you don’t want to be alone. Thinking of others, kindness, empathy, meditation, prayer, different ways to get internally centered. These are all things to get beyond crucibles and live a fulfilling, satisfying life. I mean, pretty much every chapter has an aspect, committed relationships, that really help you live a, not just a long life, but a contented, joyful life. If you follow these things. Which, again, may not have been your purpose, but it does provide a roadmap for getting beyond crucibles and leading a joy-filled life. I mean it probably partly was your purpose too, but does that make some kind of sense?

Marta Z:
I mean, totally. This is why I also called the book Growing Young. It was not about becoming younger in a way that you’re going to have less wrinkles. It was about growing as a person, so you grow as a person, and if you grow as a person you also stay younger, you stay in better health, right? So, this was an extremely important aspect for me. And also find your worthy in a way that if we will improve we will become better, we become kinder more socially connected, find meaning, give back to the community, become more optimistic that we can actually also improve our health, both mental and physical.

Gary S:
Now, that sound that you heard, listener, was the captain turning on the fasten seat belts sign and we’re coming to the place where we need to land the plane. As that happens I’m duty-bound to tell you do not turn your phones on. Not only because the flight attendants say not to, but because as Marta’s been talking about spending too much time on your phones can be bad for your sense of purpose, for your longevity. Marta, I would be remiss if I did not give you the opportunity as we begin to wrap up here to let listeners know how they can find out more about your book and find out more about you.

Marta Z:
I mean, so you can find it in all the usual book selling places from Amazon to all the small booksellers and you can also find it on my website, which is www.growingyoungthebook.com and you can find me on twitter and Instagram at @mzaraska so M-Z-A-R-S-K-A.

Gary S:
Excellent. Warwick, do you have a final thought, a final question before we wrap?

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, Marta, again thanks so much for being here. When I first read that article about purpose can help you live a longer life and then read the book, everything resonated. Having purpose defined as thinking of others, it could be a big purpose, climate change as you put it. But it could be just helping your neighborhood, like the folks in Japan. Just cleaning the sidewalks outside the house, not just so much for them, but just to make the whole street look better. I think of when you go to these Swiss villages and gosh every little house has some geraniums or flowers outside. I mean every single one, it’s just staggering and the sidewalks also look spotless. So, I don’t know, maybe they have a similar concept, but yeah, just this sense of caring for others, of optimism, committed relationships, community, internal centering mechanisms, whether it’s meditation or prayer.

Warwick F:
They will help you live longer, have more purpose and have more joy. So the fact that there’s some data behind doing things that seemed to me to be common sense and that actually says you will live longer and live healthier, I mean, I just found it very affirming and very encouraging. And I hope people will really pay attention to what you’ve said in your book and not ditch diet and exercise, which you’re not talking about that. Just do what you need to do to be healthy but don’t overly obsess about the latest supplement or the latest fad and don’t ignore the social side, the purpose side. You can do both, you do both you might actually be healthier and more joyful in all ways. I think your book is really, it has such an important message. It’s really a clarion call for people to… Don’t ignore the social side. So it was really very affirming, very challenging.

Marta Z:
Thank you.

Gary S:
Well, listener, that sound you heard was the landing gear landing on the tarmac. We have wrapped this episode of Beyond the Crucible. Here again is Growing Young, Marta Zaraska’s book. So please, get it, it’s a fascinating read. It’s one of those that people in your household get upset with you because you open it up and you can’t put it down. And they’re like, “Come to dinner.” “Wait a minute, I have to read more, there’s still more to come.” But one of the things that it points out, before I summarize some take aways here, one of the things I think it points out, if I had to summarize it and I wrote this on my notes, is that doing the things in this book, finding your purpose and applying your purpose and living your purpose make the world a better place and let you enjoy it longer. And those are two great things to put together. You’re improving your environment, your improving your world and your improving your life in terms of you can live longer.

Gary S:
And to that end, listener, here are some take aways and I’m going to, for the take aways, I’m going to use the statistics and I’m going to preface some of these statistics with Marta’s explanation that there’s are not set in cement, these are from different studies with different methodologies and so don’t take this the statistics so much to heart as you would the arrow that they point toward. That these are good statistics, they’re not walking around quoting them verbatim may not because they’re not all universal. But from this book I have pulled three tips, one is, volunteering lowers your risk of death by 22%. That is a fascinating statistic. And again, don’t get hung up on the number, get hung up on the arrow. Volunteering can make your life longer and better and the benefit of that, if you volunteer to help someone who’s lonely, that helps their life as well. The second thing is, improving close relationships has a 45% again, don’t get hung up on the number, it has a great impact on your longevity, by improving close relationships.

Gary S:
Having those people that Marta described who will call you up when you’re sick and bring you soup or bring you medicine. Those kind of people, even in this situation we’re in now with the pandemic. You can still have close relationships and you can still work on those things. And then the one that I ended our conversation with. This statistic is a bit stark but it’s one of those statistics we can change, 40% in the US haven’t found their purpose yet. Here’s the good news about that, we can change it. You can put down your phone, you can unplug your video game. You can watch this, if you’re on YouTube, if you’re not I’m going to describe for you what I’m doing, I am taking off my fitness tracker. You can take off your fitness tracker and not be obsessed about it. If you do those things then you think about it and take, as Warwick often has said, when you think about your purpose you think about your purpose and you can take, as Warwick often says one small step toward it.

Gary S:
What that small step is, is going to vary for everybody listening to this conversation. But that’s how you find your purpose. Think about it and then act on it, take one small step to find out what that might be that aligns with your values and your talents and then go pursue it. So, listener, until the next time that we’re together here on Beyond the Crucible, thank you for spending time with us in this truly enlightening conversation with Marta Zaraska. If you would do a favor for Warwick and I, click, subscribe to the podcast app on which you’re listening to this show right now. That helps us reach more people with these kinds of conversations, which are eye-opening. And hopefully experience opening for you as it leads you down the road to pursue that life of purpose.

Gary S:
And until we are together the next time, remember this, that your crucible experiences is painful and it’s real and we know that. We’ve been through those things but it does not have to be the end of your story. In fact, it will not be the end of your story, if you learn the lessons of that crucible, if you apply the lessons of that crucible to your life as you move forward. The reason it’s not the end of your story, the reason it’s the beginning of a new chapter in your story and the most rewarding chapter of your story is that, that new chapter, that new experience, those lessons you’ve learned applied to your life as you go forward can lead you to a life of significance.

Leave a Comment