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Why Meaningful Encounters Matter – Experience Life

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Loneliness is a huge health risk for us all. Here are ways to create more high-quality connections.

If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we are meant to stay connected. It’s not optional — we need regular contact with other people. We need to belong.

Loneliness is one of the greatest risks to health, right up there with smoking. It is associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancer, inflammation, and memory problems. Research also suggests that loneliness intensifies one’s experience of symptoms from ­certain viral illnesses, perhaps heightening risk for those who are socially distanced for too long.

Genuine happiness also correlates with our degree of social connection. Researchers have looked at what makes some people exceptionally happy: Is it a healthy diet? Exercise? An active spiritual life? Good fortune? It’s none of these.

In one study, what was different about the upper 10 percent of consistently happy participants was that they cultivated stronger social connections.

Other studies have focused on the pursuit of happiness. In other words, does actively trying to be happy (by setting specific goals) correlate with greater happiness? Not necessarily. In fact, many who strive for happiness end up less happy one year later.

Still, there was a notable difference based on the type of striving: People who chose individual goals, even laudable ones like becoming healthier or finding a better job, were often less satisfied at the end of the study. Those who pursued social goals, however, like spending more time with friends or family, ended up feeling better about their lives. When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, not all activities are equal.

The life-giving nature of social contact comes in many forms. It doesn’t require a close, intimate relationship, or even a tight-knit, supportive friend group. We can get our social needs met through different degrees of familiarity and various levels of intimacy. Even virtual connection works for a while; ultimately, though, it is no substitute for actual face-to-face encounters.

And it’s worth remembering that, as with most things, there is a continuum of need for social contact. Where we land on the introversion–extroversion scale influences the nature of our social interactions. But when it comes to staying healthy and happy, we all need to connect.

I recently read about a psychology professor and happiness researcher at the University of Michigan named Jane Dutton. She wrote that her favorite happiness practice is “to be alert to high-quality connections (HQCs)… which are like vitamins that strengthen me from within.”

These HQCs are regular, day-to-day encounters, the kind we miss so much during our collective social distancing. They can be brief and routine, and they can involve complete strangers.

So what makes some encounters high quality and others forgettable? Noticing them. It is our degree of conscious awareness that makes the difference.

In other words, it’s less important what we do, or how much we do it, but that we are there for it. It’s like a raffle: You must be present to win.

So, whatever you do with another person, give him or her your attention and notice the exchange of energy during the interactions. Then you can be sure to receive the gifts of connection.


Henry Emmons, MD
is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com.

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Health & Fitness

Which Type of Butter Should You Choose?

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Which butter is better? Here are five varieties to consider.

  1. Organic butter offers more healing omega-3 fatty acids than other butters. And it’s less likely to have high levels of toxins, which can accumulate in an animal’s fatty tissues.
  2. Grassfed butter delivers more beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Beta-carotene is a potent antioxidant, and CLA can help improve body composition and reduce cardiovascular-disease risk. Some studies also show CLA may help protect against cancer.
  3. Cultured butter is slightly fermented or aged. “Fermenting butter increases the amount of butyrate,” says nutritionist Liz Lipski, PhD, which is a win for gut health. It also has a slightly tangy flavor that many people enjoy.
  4. Unsalted butter is largely a matter of taste preference compared with salted butter. Like butter, salt carries its own stigma when it comes to heart health — one that has been debunked in recent years. (For more on concerns about sodium, see “Is Salt Bad for You — Or Not?”.)
  5. Ghee is a clarified butter in which the milk has been heated and the solids skimmed off. It can be used in all the same ways as butter, and because the solids have been removed, it is often more digestible for people who don’t tolerate casein or lactose. It contains the same nutrients as butter, including butyrate. Ghee is stable at room temperature, making it a good option for meals on the go or while camping. (For a tasty recipe for infused ghee, visit “Infused Ghee”.)

This article originally appeared as “Butter Up” in “Everything’s Better With Butter” in the January/February 2021 issue of Experience Life.

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