How to save a life

I have been at a very low ebb this week. Really very down and depressed – purely because I’ve been sick. It’s nothing serious, just a nasty cold and cough, making me tired, rundown and massively out of sorts. No-one would find it surprising that being sick makes you miserable, but it amazes me that we still haven’t got our collective heads around the idea that being miserable makes you sick. The corollary, of course, is that happiness & community can keep you healthy.

A startling illustration of the health benefits of community was documented long ago. It is known as The Roseto Effect. I first read about it in the introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”, and it blew me away. In the 1960s (yes, over 40 years ago) a chance conversation led an American Physician named Stewart Wolf to study the Pennsylvanian town of Roseto. It was unique in that the inhabitants had stunningly low levels of heart disease. In fact, the death rate in Roseto from all diseases was 30 to 35% lower than anywhere else in the US. That’s an astounding difference.

The entire town of Roseto then went under the microscope in a big way. To cut a long story short, Roseto was a very close knit town of Italian immigrants. Their diet was horribly high in fat. They didn’t exercise much, and many of them smoked. Yet they were almost ludicrously healthy. They also had a zero crime rate, and never applied for government assistance of any kind. Their diet, their genes, and their environment were picked apart, to no avail. It turned out that the only difference anyone could find in their lifestyle was social. They were close knit, families were large and coherent, and everyone was in and out of everyone else’s houses. They were totally involved in each other’s lives, to a degree that is increasingly rare in Western society.

That was it. That was the difference. They looked out for each other. They knew each other well, talked and interacted heavily every day, and were generally a warm and tightly interconnected community. And this, quite literally, saved their lives. This was identified way back in the 1960s. And yet we still find our society moving further and further away from community, and pushing the idea of the individual above all else.

Have you ever been to the doctor feeling unwell, to have her ask you about your social networks? Neither have I. Yet these days we are also finding that community boosts your intelligence. It makes you healthier, it makes you wiser, and we just can’t seem to get our collective heads around the idea that it is crucial to our society. And although we know that social networks are crucial to health and well being, the infrastructure is simply not in place for the kind of large scale social change that would bring back community.

Community is found in the people you see every day – if you have the time and energy to involve yourself in their lives, and invite them into yours. Workplaces frequently don’t foster it, and workforces are increasingly mobile anyway. Local shops are not meeting places anymore, and people no longer walk around their neighbourhoods.

Yet we can interact more than we do – we can still make the most of the opportunities each day presents to us.  Simply by looking the supermarket cashier in the eye and asking about his day, or pausing to exchange a comment about the weather with a passerby, we increase our connectedness to the people around us. This morning as I rode to a friend’s place to go for our weekly walk, I chatted to lots of passersby – some of whom walked intently, head down, even scowling. Yet they all responded to a cheery “good morning”, and many of the interactions left us both smiling more than we were before.

Even that much interconnection can boost our health – studies have shown that even a forced smile causes genuine and positive physiological changes in blood pressure and blood chemistry. Imagine what a real smile and a moment of warm human contact can do.

How often have you bought groceries, paid for petrol, or walked past a school crossing guard without ever looking at the faces of the people you were dealing with? Engrossed in our own worlds, listening to our iPods or busy texting, it’s easy to forget that there are people around you. Next time you are out and about, take the time to connect with someone you wouldn’t normally notice. And next time you are miserable, instead of reaching for the chocolate or indulging in some retail therapy, visit a friend. It just might save your life.

(more on the roseto effect)

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