Have You Actually Lost A Year… Or Gained A Few?

March 2020 feels like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. How weird is it now to see people in films go into crowded spaces without masks on? The world as we know it has changed forever, so slowly and yet so suddenly and... Hang on, Parasite won the Oscar this year?
The loss experienced this year, in every sense of the word, has been immense and immeasurable. Loved ones, entire businesses, jobs, even the most basic sense of security. We’ve missed being able to get married, graduate and say our goodbyes in hospitals and at funerals. And even if you’re one of the 9% who think 2020 has actually been "great" or "good" (sure), we’re all united in at least feeling the loss of time. That feeling of losing a year of our lives we won’t get back.
Of course, in the middle of a global health crisis, it feels churlish to start complaining about your lot. Nobody wants to tap the mic and say, "Err, actually, my big plans were cancelled and I’m pretty gutted about that because 2020 was meant to be MY YEAR and now I just feel a bit haggard and closer to death." But that's probably how you feel, because that's how we're all feeling; it's been a shitty year.
But what if there were another way of looking at things? Is it possible to gain this year back? To gain more than a year back, even? What if the way the world has changed (and how we've adapted to those changes) has actually added a few years to our lives? Because as horrendous as this year has been (and for no one more than the incredible key workers out there), there have been some big societal changes which, if we hold onto them, have the potential to change our world for the better – perhaps even adding a year or two to our lives.

We're learning to prioritise our health...

You’ll have heard a hundred times that we’re breathing cleaner air due to the reduced air and road traffic. And, of course, we’ve all become more hygiene-conscious forever. Some of us took up more exercise this year, too – whether that was a daily walk, YouTube workout or getting into running for the first time – and Dr Şirin Atçeken, psychotherapist and EMDR specialist at WeCure, tells me that running even once per week can increase life expectancy by 27%. 
There’s also reportedly been a reduction in burnout across the country – even if sometimes, working late at our dinner tables, we really, really haven’t felt it. "The pandemic has changed the way we establish work-life balance, with life becoming a priority," Şirin tells me. "People are learning to switch off and set better boundaries, all of which increase positivity and reduce stress." 

...and finding our 'ikigai'

On the whole, we’ve had a lot of time to think, which can be both good and bad – but let’s choose the good for a moment. "In many ways, the pandemic acted somewhat like a leveller," Beatrice Andrew, neuroscientist and behavioural science consultant at VERJ, tells me. "It gave some of us an opportunity to focus our attention on what is really important." 
What else to do when you have fewer distractions than contemplate the meaning of life, eh? I’ve spent many a daily walk getting deep and meaningful to Folklore (and now, Evermore) and I’m not alone. Studies suggest many of us have been reevaluating our entire reason for being – and it turns out, it’s really good for you. 
"There are so many studies linking meaning and purpose in life with longevity, lower mortality rates and generally better health," says Marta Zaraska, science writer and author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. Marta refers to the popular study which states that British people were happier during WW2 than they were in the '80s. "The most likely reason for it is when times get tough, people are more likely to look for meaning," says Marta, "and looking for meaning is the biggest predictor to being happy in your life."
This sense of meaning and purpose in life is what the Japanese refer to as "ikigai". The centenarians of Okinawa, Japan – one of the world’s Blue Zones (an area where people live longer, healthier lives) and subject of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret To A Long and Happy Life – put their longevity down to having a strong, driving reason for being, as well as eating a plant-based diet, gardening and maintaining a lifelong circle of friends. I’ll have what they’re having.

We're learning new things...

Keeping an active mind is another popular tipple from the fountain of youth. Beatrice tells me that learning new things challenges our ability to think and process information, and studies have linked cognitively stimulating activities to an increase in brain health. "Generally, keeping your mind active, particularly during a time of isolation, is a good idea psychologically anyway," she says.
Many of us have used this time indoors to be curious, experiment and learn new things. According to Google UK’s Year In Search, we’ve been asking 'why' more than ever, and getting stuck into DIY, from arts and crafts to home improvements. We’ve also been upskilling in the kitchen, learning new languages and picking up guitars.
"Being curious, continuing to learn and expanding oneself are very closely linked with increased life energy and life satisfaction," Şirin adds. "Having an improved life energy, using our brain more efficiently, making new connections and boosting brain plasticity are all ways to live a longer life."

...and finding new ways to connect with others

2020 has also shone a light on the loneliness crisis. Nine million British people report feeling lonely and double the number of people will be lonely this Christmas compared to last. Marta tells me that loneliness is linked to a two to three times higher risk of premature death, with studies showing that it can increase cortisol (the stress hormone) and inflammation – and that’s without even touching on what it does to your mental health.
We are social creatures. We’ve evolved to function as a tribe and that’s why, Marta tells me, there’s a strong link between social hormones (oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins) and our physiologies. "Oxytocin also reduces inflammation and promotes bone growth; serotonin regulates liver function, and our HPA axis – which is the fight-flight response – functions best when we are surrounded by other people and feel safe," she tells me. As a result, we have less cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. We don't just work better as a team; our bodies literally function better.
Of course, connecting with people IRL isn’t exactly what 2020 was made of. At the same time, I’ve definitely been calling family and friends more this year than ever before. And there’s good news to come out of all those Zoom calls and voice notes. "Some fascinating research showed that a voice call causes a much bigger release of oxytocin than a text message," Marta tells me, "even when the message is exactly the same. They didn’t do a video call comparison, but I'd guess video is even better. It's not the same as in person, of course, but it's still definitely better than texting." Check out, too, this advice from the self-confessed introvert who made more friends this year, from behind closed doors, than ever before.

We've remembered those around us

This year has also seen us connect more with our communities, support our local businesses and even meet neighbours for the first time. "Every single connection you have is important to your life," says Marta, "and being connected to your community is also one of the very big predictors of whether you will live long or not. Studies show that, whereas diet and exercise can lower your mortality risk anywhere from 20-30%, being very socially connected can lower your mortality risk by 45%." 
Don’t forget, we’ve also shown kindness, compassion and empathy to people we’ll never even meet. Donations to charities soaredover 750,000 people signed up to be NHS volunteers, and we calmly sat down with our older relatives and explained why staying home is important "even if you don’t care if you catch it". Slowly but surely, we all became more empathetic.
And guess what – #BeKind is more than just a hashtag, it’s one helluva health kick. “Not only does kindness, acceptance, caring and patience lead to more positive emotions and make us deal with situations in better ways," Şirin explains, "but they can also help the immune system, blood pressure and improve sleep patterns, all of which are linked to longer, healthier lives." 

So let's keep it going into 2021

If you’d like to continue the extra slice of life pie into next year, here are some tips from the experts that are good for your mind, body and longevity. 
- Practise optimism (or at least fake it 'til you make it). Optimism can add four to 10 years to your life.
- Prioritise your life intentions. And act accordingly.
- Cultivate joy, playfulness and entertainment in your life.
- Remember to give yourself a break.
- Find a cause you care about, and volunteer if you can.
- Continue to connect with your friends and family members, even if it’s only online. 
- Learn new things. Now everything is available online; use those resources. 
- If you feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to get help from your support network. And if you still feel like you’re drowning, please seek help from a professional

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