Over the last weekend of September, I went to the Global Citizen Festival on the Great Lawn in Central Park in the heart of New York City. I was in the middle of more than 60,000 people, all passionate about universal equality for education, health care and human rights. There was a collective energy geared towards causes like protecting the environment and the need to vote. It was amazing to be a part of such a passionate community, whose voices together seemed like they could move the earth.
That sense of community has stuck with me ever since. The riveting nature of what it felt like to be a small part in that bigger whole was motivating, inclusive, nurturing and life changing. It reminded me of what happens when people come together to reach a goal. It reinforced for me how important our own communities are in our lives, and how much community could be an important-but-overlooked part of what it might take to change behavior and help us all become healthier.
Nobody gets healthy in a vacuum. We know this is true on a basic level. We understand group support, dieting groups, corporate wellness programs with people competing to lose the most weight or improve other health metrics while supporting each other, walking groups, and exercise classes.
We intrinsically know that being part of a group can be more motivating than doing something difficult on your own. Just look at social media, perhaps the best example of how “community” is being used to help people find support, motivation and human connection in their quests to get healthy. There are diet groups, exercise groups and all kinds of support groups. Really, group chats or Facebook groups created around a common purpose are no different than any other group that gets together to help support, motivate and communicate with each other. Whether it’s a knitting circle, a Tupperware party or a book club, social groups are about a mission or a purpose that can become greater than the original purpose. The power of the collective exponentially increases its impact just by the nature of people coming together with a common goal and having a common bond.
Dan Buettner, the National Geographic explorer and author of the Blue Zone books, examined communities all over the world where people appeared to be the happiest and were living the longest. He narrowed his search down to five areas that best exemplified this health and well-being paradigm. They were: The Barbagia region of Sardinia; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California; and Okinawa, Japan. He named these areas “Blue Zones.” During the course of his research, he consulted medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists, and discovered that there were nine common characteristics in the people living in these areas that not only increased longevity, but were part of what led to greater happiness:
- The people engaged in moderate and regular physical activity.
- People had a clearly defined life purpose.
- They practiced stress reduction in various ways.
- They had a moderate calorie intake.
- They mostly ate plant-based diets with relatively few animal products.
- They had moderate alcohol intake and favored wine.
- They practiced a form of spirituality or religion.
- They were actively engaged in family life.
- They had active social lives well into old age.
What strikes me about this list is that while, yes, these people exercised and ate heart-healthy diets, most of the items on the list are not about these standard remedies. Yes, most of these people practice an approximation of the Mediterranean Diet, have active lifestyles, work on decreasing stress and living with purpose, which are all concepts that I talk about so often. But belonging, putting family first and having a “tribe” or social circles that support healthy behaviors are also on the list. This idea of community encompasses three of the nine targeted behaviors, demonstrating that community is paramount to health.
I believe the influence of community on health is largely underestimated. Standard analyses of studies that purport to summarize positive health behaviors (like the Framingham study and the risk score developed from that data) don’t take community into account. But I think that when we discount it, we might be missing what ultimate wellness is really about.
Health is about being actively engaged with others. It’s about connection with families, social groups, religious or spiritual groups, even a higher power (although what that means throughout the Blue Zones differs). In many of these regions, extended family is a major focus. Couples are committed for life…elders are revered and taken care of…and children are nurtured by the whole community. These are the same things I talk about in my Heart Book—heart-centered living that focuses on connection. We know this increases life expectancy, overall wellness and life satisfaction. This is the happiness quotient.
In a world divided by deep rifts in opinions, with people increasingly isolated from genuine human contact because of technology, it was really something to find myself standing in the middle of Central Park hearing people saying words of inclusiveness and saying that love mattered. I felt it deep within, and it felt new and surprising but also familiar in some instinctual way. It’s the feeling of being together for worship, prayer or ritual. It’s the feeling of a connectedness to each other and to something bigger than ourselves. It’s the feeling that community nurtures the soul. It’s the feeling of a big, beautiful family that supports the essence of each one of its members—the tribe that keeps you on the straight and narrow, so you want to eat right, you want to show up to the gym when you said you would, you want to stop doing those self-destructive things that you promised you wouldn’t do anymore. The Blue Zones may seem geographically remote to many of us and separate from our real lives, but we can make news ones that can spring up all around us.
Pause for a moment and think about your own community and your own social circle. Does it nurture you, support you, fuel you and allow you to grow and be your best self? Here’s my charge to you: If the answer is no, then walk away. Find your place somewhere else, where you feel supported. Find your community and you will find the missing link to health, wellness and longevity. And if you are going to live longer, you might as well embrace happiness too.
Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life