"The good life is built on good relationships."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
What do the majority of the oldest living people have in common? They're from varied regions, climates, cultures, and diets (Blue Zones). What most of them have in common is a close-knit community. From villagers in Greece to the people of Okinawa, tribes in the Middle East and southern Russia, villagers of Peru and Ecuador, Rosetans in Pennsylvania to even 7th Day Adventist in California, they're all part of a cooperative collective — a village. You need a village to raise strong character. And this results in the longest of lives.
There's a reason why, rather than individuals (individuals can be the exception, rather than the rule), we look to groups. Certain groups as a whole, live longer than the average individual. Think of a village as a cooperative, everyone is invested and actively working toward keeping the collective alive. You want to make sure you're healthy, and your neighbor is healthy, and your neighbor does the same — and these overlapping interests work out in everyone's favor.
Can you be maximally independent and self-interested and also maximize life expectancy? Let me put it another way, can you maximize your life in a vacuum? Alone on an island? If you tried to convince yourself you could, then what would you do? Probably buy a lot of stuff that would help you as an individual. The manufacturers would want you to believe you are different from the herd, that you'll outlive the herd if you buy their products. Community is a competitor to their products. After all, friendship, love, and family cannot be packaged. Why do we need human contact when we can work all day, buy a green smoothie, take a multivitamin, and run on a treadmill? Is this not more convenient? Yes ... we'd like to believe that's all it takes to be healthy; social interactions can be sticky and complicated, it involves a lot of work. That's where we become irrational, believing we can bypass work while still maintaining the final outcome.
Public health studies the health of the community. When we compete against our own group, trying to separate from the herd, to be healthier than the herd, the herd as a whole gets sicker. Separating healthy members weakens the community while increasing the fragility of those formerly healthy members who are now isolated. (You usually quarantine sick people, not healthy people.)
Genetically, our bodies associate isolation with danger, putting us in a defensive state. In the short-term, it helps immune cells fight off infection and quickens healing. But in the long-term, it promotes inflammatory diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, growth of cancer cells, and plaque in the arteries. In essence, remaining defensive, just like constant paranoia, runs counter to longevity. John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago concludes our bodies are "programmed to turn misery into death." As a predictor of death, isolation eclipses obesity.
We need constant social interactions. People who are socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely, whereas people who frequently interact with those they care about, live longer.
Social interactions tend to outweigh the influence of loneliness. Sometimes we can feel lonely, even if we are not alone. Then we may think, what's the use of having others around? Yet studies show even if we feel lonely around others, interactions still have a positive impact that outweighs the negative consequences of loneliness. (Which may eventually reduce the feelings of loneliness altogether.)
When we're around others, we're no longer isolated, but it is when we interact, that we are no longer socially isolated. (Think of the lonely child at recess no one plays with.) And as far as life expectancy is concerned, it does not seem to matter whether we are "extroverts" or "introverts." We need to be social at some level to be healthy. (It's why puppies and babies need play dates for their development.) And rather than needing less of it, social interactions only become more vital as we age.
Our brain dies when there's no one to talk to. The primitive part of our brain is for eating and procreation. The higher part of our brain is for reasoning, interaction, and cooperation. Our brain has a lot of say in how long we live, and if it no longer has a need for interaction, then it's time to close up shop. This is why solitary confinement is the worst form of punishment.
If we are active but do not see any immediate changes to our physique, we may give up on activity. However, being active, whether we are big or small, is a good determiner of future mental health (which is crucial for longevity). As an instant gratification culture, we risk our lives if we mistakenly dismiss what works in the long-run. We can be physically fit in a matter of months; it may take years to become mentally fit. Yet all the emphasis is on the physical when it is the mental that needs more care.
People are messy and interactions can be messy, but as imperfect as it may be, we need them. There can be fights, there can be conflict, but science confirms the benefits outweigh the risks. And science is only reinforcing old wisdom. The same truisms told by previous generations, only to be disregarded by the newest generations. Perhaps we need to learn the hard way, maybe that's part of the process. (Sooner or later, we'll preach the same thing.)
Our Common History
The biggest boost to our health has nothing to do with our individual behaviors. We have created safety nets (health care, modern medicine, vaccines, laws, and policies), yet we still find ways to slip through the cracks. Safety nets give us the confidence to neglect community. Historically, groups helped us mitigate risk, but if we no longer see the risks, we may question the value in groups. So we leave to do it on our own. The lone wolf. We romanticize it, the person who did it all alone, with only their bootstraps. There can only be one star, no ensemble cast needed. (And if that's our attitude, who'd want to be around us anyway?) Yet studies show you live longer when you have a partner, and mortality rises when you don't. People do better, especially with illness, when they have confidants and a support system.
Why do soldiers want to go back to war? Why do they miss it? No matter how broken or traumatized, they are?
In 2007, American journalist and documentarian Sebastian Junger spent a year with one platoon in the Korengal Valley — the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. His experience turned into the documentary film Restrepo and the book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. On the paradox of soldiers missing what they, themselves, would call "hell," Junger says:
Catastrophes can destroy individuals, yet communities come together in catastrophes. It's a practical solution for survival: tasks are easier to complete as a team, productivity increases, work becomes more enjoyable, takes less energy, and it distributes and minimizes risk. An individual can only live as long as their lifespan; a community can live indefinitely. Procreation and offsprings do nothing for the individual's lifespan, the point has always been for the species.
Isolation leads to poorer health choices: poor eating, drinking, smoking, etc. Being alone makes everything worse: physical pain becomes more painful, mental pain becomes unbearable. We need people to live for if we are to make better decisions. Without the safety net of others, there is one natural conclusion.
When we are isolated and disconnected, we are more likely to turn to drugs, and behave in self-destructive ways.
George Leonard, in The Way of Aikido, writes:
It might sound strange but those who have had traumatic high school experiences, or were rescued from a toxic cult, will still say there are parts of their ordeal that they will miss. And what they will miss is always the same: the community. That's how much we crave it, that's how much we are in need of it. To intelligent beings, it is as vital as air and water. Even in the worst of situations, we still need air and water. Some native people die in a couple of weeks if separated from their tribe. Not suicide, not due to exposure nor a lack of food and water; their bodies shut down from loneliness.
Living for Community
One of the longest running and best-funded studies on longevity is the Harvard Grant Study. The current director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, found that those who placed more emphasis on maintaining strong social networks were happier and healthier than those who did not. In medicine, this is called the Roseto effect (written about in Outliers), where close-knit communities experience reduced mortality rates. (Discovered in 1961, named after the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania. Though you could hardly say this was discovered as this was already common folk wisdom.)
Evolution's task is to increase the survival of the species (not the individual). Then it only makes sense that our ability to survive increases when we're part of a larger group (it also increases genetic diversity, adaptations, and ability to create more offspring). We've evolved together, we're meant to survive together. (Or the species as a whole perishes.)
We all need to be a part of something. Important things in life can't be measured quantitatively; when people say money can't buy everything, it means money is a form of measurement, and the most important things can't be measured. You can quantify the calories in food or the number of calories burned in a workout (and even those numbers are not accurate), but just because it is measurable does not mean it is the most valuable. It only means it is measurable.
Community is beyond measure.
In Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes:
A community raises good character, those with good character form communities.
Money Can Replace Community
When we think about money, it affects how we behave in a given situation. This is "money priming," and it is powerful. Money can replace our primary focus, of being social creatures. When reminded of money, we will give up personal interactions, and work unpleasant tasks for longer. It is so dominant that in studies, fake money, like Monopoly money, elicited the same responses as real money.
In one study, a test group sat at a table with Monopoly money, another test group sat at an empty table. Then, waiting for the next phase of the test to begin, a research assistant walked by and dropped a box of pencils. The subjects were unaware this was the actual test. The group that was not exposed to Monopoly money were much more likely to be helpful and sociable. The group exposed to the fake money were less helpful, more aloof, and kept to themselves.
Money drives people to create goals and accomplish tasks that may not matter, tasks that come at the price of social interactions and health. (Money gets us to do things we may not want to do, so we devise ways, like goal-setting, to get ourselves to do them.)
Rather than relying on friends and kin to accomplish tasks, we'll throw money at the problem. Something as simple as getting a ride from a friend or help with moving, we'll hire out. The direct effect is, we have less reason to congregate and work as a team for anything other than money. Indirectly, we feel less motivated to help others because we never asked them for help.
Money can override our survival instincts because we have learned to associate it with our being. We'll trade our health and personal time (life) for money. When money causes harm, we use analogies of the soul: how "it sucks our soul", "kills our soul", how we "sell our soul." There is a scientific basis for these aphorisms. We're willing to kill ourselves for money if we subconsciously value money over our own physical life. Money has become the primary measure of a person's worth. Rather than enjoying time, we "spend" time. When something loses value, it is "discounted." Everything becomes a value proposition linked to money.
The "soul" was what we once called our ultimate value; then what man once valued the "soul" as, we value money as.
At what cost? Our happiness and health.
We have to focus on why we are making money, not on money itself. Money is only important because we can trade it for things that can provide happiness and welfare; it can bring comfort not only to ourselves but to those around us. Health and happiness are the things of value; therefore, it makes little sense to trade what is valuable (happiness and welfare), for what has no intrinsic value (money). If we forget why we make money, we will sacrifice our intent with money for money. (E.g., if our intent with money was to feed ourselves, and we forget the intent and only remember that we need to make money, we may forget to eat to pursue money.)
Money exists to help us be healthier and happier, but if we exist for money, we will sacrifice health and happiness in the pursuit.
Rituals and Shared Beliefs
Many spiritual and cultural beliefs seem arbitrary, but they served an essential function, especially in early societies. It gave reason for congregation (the term is still synonymous with religion), even with members of the community you may not have normally interacted with. It was a reason to defer self-interests and work toward the best interests of the group. Scientists have discovered spiritual practices even in chimpanzee societies. As cultures advance, rituals become canon. As a culture, as we move away from strict religious doctrines, we still turn to the spiritual, and some of us back to the mystical. Religion serves a need, for better or worse, and as we walk away from that tradition, we find other ways to fill that need. Whether it's through politics, sports, or even shared interests and causes, we still regularly congregate.
The word "community" gives rise to "communion." The bread of life. Just as bread, through the magic of invisible yeast, rise, narrative rises from our survival impulse.
Longevity Is a Character Trait
Those that live the longest do not set goals to live the longest. (Or get "ripped" abs.) They do not go on longevity diets or start running to live longer. We act in accordance with our character. The very need to set goals for long-term health implies that our character is not conducive to long-term health. Our health is determined by our actions, and our actions are determined by our character.
Goals don't necessarily change the person, yet a person who has changed for the better does not need goals.
We must think about what kind of person we want to be. We must make changes to our environment that are conducive to the changes we've made to ourselves. If we leave our character the same but set external goals, all the findings show, we will revert back to our old patterns. Goals are useful for tasks that have a completion; goals are not indefinite — then by definition, they will fail when used for any indefinite task. For example: if you like sitting on the couch and hate running, but set a goal to run, for a short time you will run, but eventually, you will go back to doing what you like, sitting on the couch. (Running is temporary, the couch is indefinite.) If your goal was to run for a short time, you have completed your goal. If it was to maintain a practice indefinitely, then without an end date, without a final result for your efforts, the goal expires. Rather than forcing ourselves to run, we must become an active person. This means growing a respect and appreciation for physical activity, which may include running. But rather than running as a goal we check off our list, we should run as a ritual — as a practice. Run not because you have some goal or ulterior motive, run just to run. Change your environment, surround yourself with others who like to run. Until it becomes something you do, something that is a natural to you. Just like we've done with money or our phones, they've become second nature, not because we set a goal, but, because we inadvertently ritualized it. Good or bad, we can make anything a part of our survival instinct.
Life events will cause environmental changes that can dramatically affect our health. Something to consider is when we leave school, change jobs, move, or retire. We not only lose daily social interactions, but familiarity, support, and friendship. This is truer as we age, as people pass away. Those who maintain old relationships, replace the ones lost, and continue to build new ones, enjoy not only a longer life but a higher quality life.
We can choose to be with friends and family, establishing close bonds, or healing old trauma (if they are within the realm of healing). And if relationships, even with family, are toxic, we can choose to step away.
We have options: what we eat, whether to exercise, change jobs, whom to marry, where to live, start a family, or be outdoors in clean air and calm scenery. Good health is not a goal (since we don't know the end date), it's a series of rituals, practices, and decisions — ones that require good judgment and good reasons for follow-through (for those we care about and for feeling cared about). Vanity and ego are currently the primary drivers of health and according to research, it's not creating healthier behaviors. Why would it? Just as spending quality time with others does not make sense to vanity and ego, vanity and ego do not make sense to longevity.
The vain and egotistical are the most isolated.
Modern societies do not live longer than cultures of the past because our vanity makes us healthier, we live longer because of better sanitation and modern medicine (safety nets), which still struggles to counterbalance most of our unhealthy behaviors. Imagine society if we leveraged healthy habits with modern health care?
Longevity is a character trait, so is community. They are the common traits of the oldest living people.
Community Makes Us Happy
What studies like the Grant Study consistently found was, happy people live longer. Then what is happiness? Dr. George Vaillant, former director of the Grant Study, says:
If we existed alone, could we know happiness? We may know sensory pleasure, but real happiness has meaning, it is deep and intellectual, and married to our relationships.
According to a recent study, the two most important life goals for young adults were money and fame. Yet, as demographics get older, money and fame become the least important. What rises to the top? Connections, family, and happiness. Above a certain amount, beyond when needs are met, money only makes people less happy. Above a certain level of reputation, where friends and family are ample, fame makes people less happy.
We naturally focus on the short-term. (Long-term takes imagination, something we may be lacking if all of our focus is on work and money.) What's important in the first twenty to thirty years changes when we look at forty years and beyond. If we look at life as a whole, things begin to level out. Situations that initially made people suffer, like challenges and obstacles, later on, create robustness. Extreme diets work in the interim; sensible eating works better in the long-run. Achievements seem important in our twenties, but conscientiousness matters in the long-run. As the old adage goes: "Nobody on their deathbed wishes they spent more time alone in the office." The truth is, even for the most loved and loving, they will still wish they devoted more time to others and did more for their community.
According to Dr. Howard S. Friedman and Dr. Leslie R. Martin of The Longevity Project, what matters isn't having a dream job, what matters is your relationship with your co-workers. They also found a certain level of stress is good for health. But what ranked most important in their study wasn't something subjects did, but rather, something subjects were. They called it being "conscientious."
A conscientious person is principled, has a strong inner sense of what's right (conscience), works hard, and is honest. It's like we've always been told, it's not about eating broccoli, it's still about becoming a better person. (And conscientious people tend to eat better as a matter of course.) Then perhaps we need to go back to emphasizing character building.
Back to Basics
Walter Breuning, a railroad man from Montana, died at the age of 114. Born in 1896, he started with the Great Northern Railway in 1913. Before he died, he left the world some down-to-earth advice:
- Tell the truth from the go (it works out better and doesn’t kill you).
- Embrace change (even the computer).
- Keep the body busy (even strolling the halls with your walker).
- Be kind to others.
The response to Breuning's advice was tremendous. This was a bit of a surprise to those who ran Breuning's story since he wasn't famous, since he wasn't larger than life, since his words weren't fanciful, mystical, poetic, profound, or any of the other clichés we were used to. People were finally in need of something different, they were excited for it.
Trent Gilliss of On Being writes:
You look at the groups and even individuals who have lived the longest, and they all cherished community. Perhaps it's because good people who like to work hard tend to come together. Perhaps community is a byproduct of a culture that is civic and, as Dr. Howard S. Friedman calls it, "conscientious."
The formula is simple, good character plus good relationships not only equals a long life, but also a good life. Then the focus should not be on a length, it should be on quality.
Live a Good Life
The good life doesn't have to be elaborate or extreme. It's mowing the lawn, saying hello to your neighbors, playing with kids, walking the dog, bad singing on road trips, calling people you miss, laughing with your co-workers, making dinner with your spouse, and being fully engaged with the act of living.
Perhaps it is the good person who lives the good life. Then our parents were right after all; it really is about growing up to become a good person. It's funny that I had to do all this research to come full circle. (Maybe that's part of the process.)
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study - George E. Vaillant
- Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
- The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study - Howard S. Friedman, Leslie R. Martin
- Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging - Sebastian Junger
- Community and Growth - Jean Vanier
- Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs - Johann Hari
- Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development - George E. Vaillant
- The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons From An American Sensei - George Leonard
- The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest - Dan Buettner
- "A Better Kind of Happiness" – The New Yorker
- "The Island Where People Forget to Die" - The New York Times
- "The Secrets to a Happy Life, From a Harvard Study" - The New York Times
- "Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness" – The New York Times
- "What Makes Us Happy, Revisited" - The Atlantic
- "The Longevity Project: Decades of Data Reveal Paths to Long Life" - The Atlantic
- "What Makes Us Happy?" - The Atlantic
- Sebastian Junger - TED Radio Hour
- "Words of Wisdom Upon the Death of the World’s Oldest Man" - On Being
- "The Work We Value, the Intelligence We Ignore: Is the Work That Made America Great Valued Any Longer?" - On Being
- "The Good Life" by Robert Waldinger - TEDxBeaconStreet
- "Why Big Societies Need Big Gods" - Science Magazine
- A study on the stone throwing rituals of chimpanzees
- A study on money priming and how it affects human behavior
- A study on the life goals of young adults
- A study on social isolation, loneliness, and mortality
- A study on social ties, marriage, and longevity
- A study on loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality