It’s sometimes called the ‘glue’ that binds societies together. And yet trust has been declining across the U.S. since the 1960s.
You could say our trust in others has gone from bad to worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. Mask wearing, social distancing and isolation are tantamount to saying, “Keep away, I don’t trust you.”
And yet trust is not only a core feature of a modern civilization, the latest research strongly links your ability to trust to your life expectancy.
Trust Adds Ten Months to Life
It seems surprising to suggest that the trust you put in others predicts how long you’re likely to live, but that’s precisely what researchers from Sweden have found in two studies published in 2018 and 2020.
Both studies were based on large samples drawn from the U.S. General Social Survey (GSS), performed between 1978 and 2010.
In the 2018 study, researchers examined the data on the habits of 25,270 people, and in the 2020 study they looked at the data from 23,933 people.
By taking a deep dive into the numbers, the reviewers could obtain information on American attitudes, levels of trust and socioeconomic conditions. The survey was linked to a national mortality database, which found that 6,424 and 5,382 had died in the respective study samples.
Sociologist and co-author Alexander Miething explained the findings of the first study, saying that on an individual level, “Whether or not you trust other people, including strangers, makes a difference of about ten months in terms of life expectancy.”
And if you live in a community that’s distrusting, then, “in those contexts” Dr. Miething continued, “your risk of dying is higher than in places with more community trust.”
Distrust of Others is Linked to Cardiovascular Disease
The finding of the second study was that levels of “generalized trust” — the belief that most people, including strangers, can be trusted — “showed robust and independent associations with all-cause mortality.”
For cardiovascular disease alone, “Individuals who distrusted others had, in comparison to the trusting group, a 13 percent elevated risk of death.” Dr. Miething’s team concluded, “There is a clear survival advantage for individuals who trust strangers in the U.S. population-based study.”
Social scientists tell us that our health depends, among many other things, on an adequate stock of social capital, or connections among individuals.
But even among individuals who are well connected, it is argued, they’ll not fare as well in a society that’s poorly connected. For example, a society that’s shutting down many aspects of daily life during a pandemic like the one we’re in now.
Why Trust Matters to Your Health
Potential mechanisms for how trust equates to better health at a generalized level include the idea that trusting communities are more cohesive communities and therefore are able to mobilize social support for community members.
What’s more, greater collective action helps to maintain access to local health services and amenities for everyone. A cohesive community also reduces behaviors that lead to poor health, and better disseminates positive health messages that encourage healthier choices.
At an individual level, trusting others reduces your levels of stress and anxiety. This lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a reduction that lowers the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, which is currently America’s leading cause of death.
Why the Decline in Trustworthiness?
Although trustworthiness lubricates social life it has been steadily declining.
In 1964, 77 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted.” Shortly after, during the ten years from 1977 to 1988, this number dropped almost in half, to 42 percent.
From 2000 to 2010 the number of people who agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted,” fell further to 34 percent.
I’m sure we could all debate the many societal changes over the last five decades that have brought about lowered levels of trust among our population. Perhaps our fast-paced lifestyle wears us out to the point that we can’t get to know people around us as well as we could in the past—we’re too busy and too tired from being too busy.
What’s more, over the last 20 years, the popularity of digital life from computers to iPhones means we’re inundated with negative news at all hours of the day. This would tend to reduce our trust in our fellow man.
The digital life also reduces the time we spend together as a community. Some teenagers and young adults don’t even hang out with their friends in person much anymore. Instead, they relate virtually—and this was even before the COVID-19 pandemic!
It’s known that depression levels in youngsters correlate with use of handheld devices. I’ve even seen reports that kids will text one another as they walk down the street together, instead of talking directly with the person standing right next to them.
That’s enough to make me depressed just reading about it!
Keep Up Your Social Engagement
Even though the 2020 study was drafted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors wrote, “decision makers should be aware of the costs and consequences of implementing policies that potentially erode trust levels.”
If they are correct in their analysis, the physical and emotional costs of shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic will become clear in the months and years ahead. They will show themselves in declining mental health, increased levels of chronic illness, and — tragically — shorter lives.
While I’m not here to debate the decisions leaders across the country are making to shut down certain businesses and industries, I will encourage you not to socially disengage during the COVID-19 pandemic any more than absolutely necessary.
Just before I wrote these words, I was listening to a podcast suggesting that rates of substance abuse are soaring because of the pandemic, according to a leading psychiatrist, and UNICEF has predicted 1.2 million child deaths worldwide as a result of the lockdowns, and 40 to 60 million children falling into poverty.
In short, shutting down society is not cost-free, and the sort of people who say we should stay locked down if it saves even one human life – as did New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – are uninformed, to put it as nicely as I can. No responsible public official should be thinking or talking this way.
The new research reveals that it’s essential to your health and longevity for you to remain engaged in fun, social interaction with members of your own household as well as those in your community at large. While you might not be able to—or want to – meet in person with people outside your household, you can still socialize with them virtually on Zoom or any number of other digital platforms.
Or just pick up the phone and talk to them. Imagine that!