For the last 7 years, I've worked to improve human health and wellbeing by focusing on better nutrition, vigorous physical activity, sleep hygiene, and stress management.
Turns out I may have been missing the most important determinants of health – the social ones.
Marta Zaraska has written a book that is fun, fascinating, scientifically sound, and socially revolutionary. In Growing Young, she argues that eating well and exercising are all well and good, but spending time with friends, cultivating a positive attitude, and helping others are far more powerful (and enjoyable!) determinants of health.
And, as an added benefit, living an engaged, happy, and meaningful life can certainly cut down on cravings and binges and other self-destructive behaviors.
The research that Zaraska shares on loneliness as a health threat is stunning. And given the current pandemic anxiety and social distancing and lockdowns, I suspect that the long-term health effects of all this isolation may prove as devastating as the immediate physiological harms wrought by the virus.
My biggest takeaway from Growing Young is a reminder that health is not found in individuals, but in collectives. As a health professional, I'm usually working with one client at a time, and getting paid by that person. So it's easy for me to focus all my attention on their individual behaviors: what they're eating, how much they're moving, whether they're meditating or getting sufficient sleep, and all that. This individualistic approach isn't based on science, but on an invisible paradigm of the hero pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Yes, it's great for individuals to improve their diets and lifestyles. AND – the big gains in human (and planetary) wellbeing come from the connections and relationships among us.
And that's really good news, actually. For at least two reasons that I can think of.
First, as Zaraska points out, positive social interactions are highly contagious, in a way that eating broccoli is not. Do a random act of kindness, and others are more likely to do one themselves. (Wait until you hear about the Tim Horton drive-thru line.)
Second, being socially engaged and positive and altruistic feels really good right away. In the moment. You get those squirts of dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin instantaneously, as evolution's incentive to pass on your genes by mating, rearing young, and forging strong social bonds. Contrast that with eating well or exercising, which (at first at least) typically suck in the moment, and give you positive results way down the road.
Also, Zaraska is optimistic that the pandemic, for all its challenges and hardships, may serve the purpose of reminding us of the life-giving and health-affirming value of community. Like Joni Mitchell sings, “You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.” Now that we've been deprived of much of our social life, may we understand its value, and as we move forward, may we prioritize WE over ME. After all, if it's a long, happy, healthy life you're after, taking care of others is the most selfish thing you can do.
Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.
Growing Young, on Amazon
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