Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tips from the Old World

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the popular book Outliers (which investigates what makes people successful), tells a story about a group of Italians who immigrated to Pennsylvania at the end of the nineteenth century. They were simple farming people from a little village called Roseto, looking for a better life in a more prosperous land. From scratch, they built a viable community where they could enjoy freedom and a self-sustaining existence. Many immigrants were doing exactly the same thing at the time, flocking to America to establish a life filled with opportunity and hope.

But something differentiated this particular group from all the others. In the 1950s, when heart disease was the number one killer of men under the age of sixty-five, the Rosetans seemed to be immune. For them, the most common cause of death was old age. When this fact became known, a physician named Stewart Wolf set out to explore the phenomenon. Was it their genes? Their diet? The environment? Their lifestyle? The doctor conducted a study, inviting the entire community to participate. The findings showed that along with a much lower death rate, this group had no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime.

After months of investigation and comparative research, Wolf concluded that genes, diet, environment, and lifestyle were not factors. Did these people live in a bubble? In a way they did. By examining the societal factors, Wolf came to realize that the population’s longevity was a result of their social interaction. They looked out for one another in a way that he had never seen before.

Generations shared homes and helped each other, extended family clans provided support for each other, people shared their wealth and success rather than flaunt it, and they helped and encouraged those who struggled. They had created a powerful, protective social structure that insulated them from the pressures and stresses experienced by most individuals and communities. In other words, they sheltered themselves from the “dog eat dog mentality” that pervades western society.

Gladwell uses this story to demonstrate how success in life, just like success in health, is not always determined by what seems most obvious. This story also demonstrates the importance of community engagement.

It is well known that people who live in isolation are more likely to pass away sooner than those who have vibrant connections with others. Loneliness and isolation can cause more than depression, and physical ailments such as heart disease are high on the list. People need people. We are pack animals who constantly require contact, even if we have an introverted nature.

Social networking is ablaze with millions participating and jumping onto any new form of electronic communication vehicle that comes our way. I know a sixty-year-old woman who moved here from the US a couple of years ago and to overcome her frustrations, homesickness, and challenges of finding work, she jumped right on the social-networking bandwagon. I’m amazed at her knowledge and participation in everything from Facebook to on-line chat rooms to Blogging to Tweeting. She has it all covered, and it’s probably what keeps her going.

Kids are texting someone every five seconds (my own speculative statistics) and when they’re not texting, they’re on MSN. I heard a man on CBC radio say that when when he saw that his daughter had sent something like 13,000 text messages one month, he had to intervene.

We can live in the suburbs or even a city like New York and still feel terribly isolated; just because we are surrounded by people does not make us part of a community. Years ago, when I lived in a big apartment building, I was surprised at how few people I actually bumped into in the elevator. Even when there were several people sharing the elevator, no one looked at each other or said hello. It’s interesting how we crave connections yet avoid them at the same time.

According to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the happiest Canadians are likely to be found in the eastern part of the country. Saint John, NB leads the group, followed by Quebec City, Charlottetown, Moncton (tied with Kitchener, Ont.) and St. John's. Each of these places has a strong sense of community. Knowing neighbours and trusting those around them are the key reasons that these cities found themselves on the top of the happiness scale.

When I re-read Gladwell’s story about the thriving Roseto community, it reminded me of how important it is to reach out to help others, to say something nice (even to strangers), to smile at people in passing, and to be a joiner even if it’s not always our thing. I look to my mother, who is the queen of friendly conversation, as an example. (Although, my sister and I sometimes find it frustrating to go out with her as she befriends just about every soul she encounters.)

Reaching out can pay big dividends in happiness. For those who don’t consider themselves social animals, why not give it a try? You may find yourself a little happier, and a lot less susceptible to heart disease. And if you find it too tough to make connections in the bigger cities, you can always move to Saint John!


  1. Isn't it interesting that social isolation appears to be a contributing factor to "heart" disease in particular - especially when you think about the heart's metaphorical connotations. Our heart embodies the centre of our humaneness. Our heart is the place from which love, that powerful emotion that draws people together, originates and is received. It makes perfect sense therefore - in the way simple truths often do - that an isolated heart, untended and unattended, weakens and becomes more vulnerable to disease. Thanks for this important reminder, Carla!

  2. I think this is why so many of us are happy to belong to book clubs, movie groups and mom networks. We aren't living close to our families as we would have a generation or two ago, and traditional social networks like churches aren't always the solution. Having a close and trusted circle of friends is probably more important now than ever before!