(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)

“The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital.” – Dr. Mark Hyman

“Friends are people who know you really well, and like you anyway.”– Greg Hamlyn

There is one aspect of well-being that is often overlooked or underestimated when we talk of healthy lives, and that is the role of community. It makes sense on an intuitive level, that being part of a strong community is a positive thing for us. We all know that at some level, healthy interactions with our family, friends, co-workers make us happy and reduce stress, while difficult inter-personal relationships are often among the chief causes of stress. It makes good sense – we are, after all, social animals. In recent years, we have begun to see increasing evidence, generated by solid research, that this might be much more critical than we think. Let’s take a bit of a deeper dive to examine just how important community really is.

Medical research tells us that the more stressed or depressed people are, the more likely they are to isolate themselves. It is in fact a pretty standard symptom of depression, anxiety and stress in general. And the opposite is true – that the more surrounded you are by psychologically positive relationships, the more likely you are to be psychologically and physiologically sound. In fact, this has become more than one study, or a series of studies, it has developed into a major movement in contemporary medicine. Some medical professionals believe that community is the single most important factor in medicine – that peoples relationships define who dies earlier, and who lives longer and healthier lives. Statistically, someone who is socially isolated has the same risk of dying earlier as a smoker does. That’s significant, and speaks to the powerful physiological effects of isolation.

One of the world’s longest studies on this topic comes out of Harvard, where scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression. Among the initial recruits was a Harvard student called John F. Kennedy, who would go on to become President of the United States. Others went on to become doctors, librarians, sportspeople, lawyers, leading a variety of lives, with varying degrees of happiness. Scientists at Harvard continued to follow this group over the next 80 years, collecting a treasure trove of data on their physical and mental health, and eventually expanding the study to include the initial group’s offspring as well. The results of the study, one of the most exhaustive of its kind, is that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Close human bonds protect people from life’s discontents, and even help to delay mental and physical decline. In fact, the scientists found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships  was a better predictor of long and happy lives than social class, cholesterol levels, IQ, or even genes!

So some doctors are now advocating that medical practitioners should be asking their patients about their social lives just as they ask about smoking and diet. And the great part about this, is that you can take active steps to create good social bonds.

To understand where all this is coming from, we need to look at how our species has evolved. For millions of years, we have travelled in small bands of tight-knit communities. Even the primates we evolved from have the same social structure. This is what we are designed for, and this is what our bodies and minds have been used to for millennia – a small band of anywhere from 25-150 individuals living, working, playing and travelling as a collective. Even when Victorian anthropologists would go into remote communities, studying people who had never come into contact with outsiders, these are the exact numbers they found – 25-150 people. This meant that you tended to know everyone in your community. And because it was a small group that depended on each other for survival, you needed to get along with everyone to a greater or lesser extent. You know exactly where you stood in the hierarchy, or the composition of your community.

There is a theory that the widespread fear that people have of public speaking has its roots in that ancient social structure. To speak up publicly, is to have a spotlight on yourself, and you run the risk of saying something that the rest of the group strongly disagrees with or is offended by. In extreme cases, you risk being ostracized or kicked out of your community. That’s a risk that our prehistoric ancestors would not have been keen to take, because in that kind of structure, being socially isolated would have meant almost certain death. Community was more than just friendship – it was an essential organizational structure for survival. Nowadays, those of us who live in large urban centres don’t see the immediacy of this in quite the same way. Being surrounded by people all the time and having a tight knit community are two very different things. However cities present many opportunities for potential human connection – even if it’s shopping or eating at a local establishment, or going to a gym regularly, you can put yourself in situations that have the potential to create connection.

Let’s examine the actual potency of this. The studies we mentioned found that people who are socially isolated have a five times greater risk of dying than those who have strong social connections. That’s a very high factor- as high as a serious smoker.

Now, this doesn’t mean that if you have only one good friend, or if you prefer your solitude, that you should begin worrying about your health. It’s important to recognize that we need to be able to be at peace with ourselves as well, and that solitude is a state that can be enjoyed. What we are saying is that the people you have around you can have a profound influence not just on your feelings, but on your physical health. Especially in times of crisis and transition, it is important that people feel supported, and have people that they can turn to. It is when we are personally low on emotional resources that we feel even more stressed or anxious, and people you can trust and who love you can be a major source of strength.

Shelly Taylor, a psychology professor at UCLA published a piece in Psychology Review, based on years of studies by her and other researchers that proposed an antidote to our ‘fight or flight’ response – the ‘tend and befriend’ system. Her theory is that an alternative stress response is triggered when women can exercise their more nurturing side – like when they are with their families or friends, or in a group of other women they are connected to and feel safe with. This actually stimulates the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which inhibits the release of stress hormones and calms the nervous system.

So if you do have family and friends who you connect with, and are close by, make sure you reach out to them more. Very often, we are trained to prioritize our work and the accumulation of wealth over spending time with loved ones. What we’re saying is that this shouldn’t be something you do at the end of your career, or towards the end of your life, but a vital part of your healthy living right now. And if you don’t have strong human networks for whatever reason – geographical, personal or otherwise, there are some steps you can take to build some. Here are some ideas:

  1. Reach out. Make a deliberate effort to connect with friends or family or colleagues and don’t feel shy, or see it as weakness to let them know that you really need them. In large cities, we often connect with people in a superficial way for short periods of time– the relationship equivalent of small talk. Don’t be afraid to say to your friends – “I really need your company right now.” Or “I need to talk something through with you.” Or “Can we go for a walk?”. Long term psychiatric research, as well as research from emergency 911 lines tells us that when people have a chance talk stressful things over with someone supportive, it can avert serious psychological and physical damage. 
  • Use technology to connect! Technology and social media can certainly create isolation by disconnecting people from the real world, but they also offer us an unprecedented opportunity to connect with others, no matter where in the world they are. So get off Instagram and get on Skype. If you have a close friend or family member who lives far from you, set up a weekly Skype lunch date and have a virtual meal together. Try and include people who are close to you in your daily life by skyping them while you fold your clothes away on laundry day, for example. Maintaining a strong virtual community becomes all the more important when we go through situations that require physical isolation, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s all the more important at times like this, that the internet doesn’t become a rabbit hole of further isolation. If you think of the very word ‘inter-net’, it speaks to a network of connections between people. During times of required isolation, it’s all the more important to keep a digital community going, marking special meals, birthday celebrations, or even informal conversations. We can use this opportunity to forget about online personas, and try instead to find time with friends where we are unselfconscious and authentic.
  • Join a group based on shared interests. This could be a sports-based activity like a running, cycling or swimming group, or it could be based on shared hobbies – gardening, art, a book club. Embrace art! It has been proven that people who go to museums and concerts, or who create their own art or play an instrument are happier and more satisfied with their lives regardless of how educated. And all of these things bring you in contact with a circle of people whom you get to know more and more as you do a shared activity together.
  • Volunteering is a great way not only to meet people, but to be giving back to community and society. It generates a positive feeling called ‘helper’s high’, similar to the high that you get when you exercise. It’s a biochemical effect caused by endorphin coursing through your brain and results in the warm fuzzy feeling we associate with doing a good deed. It’s also a good way to broaden your support network, bringing you into contact with people with common interests and a shared commitment. Especially for people who may not be naturally outgoing, it provides a way of developing social skills, and the momentum to branch out and make more friends.

Really the key to all of this is to recognize that community is the social ecosystem or environment in which you live. Just as it’s better for you to be working out in fresh air than in a polluted environment, it’s easier to be healthy personally if your community is healthy and supporting you, and the tips we’ve shared with you should help you lay a good foundation for this.

EOV Medical Director’s recommendations:

  1. Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnum is a book that talks about the tendency in Western societies today to isolate how people are disconnected from friends and family and the physiological and sociological effects of that.
  2. Volunteer Canada is a great place to look for volunteer opportunities if you’re based in Canada. But many countries have some version of this. An easy way to volunteer in most countries is for a local arts festival, as these organizations are almost always on the lookout for volunteers, and the opportunities are short term, so relatively easy to test. The Volunteer Canada website also has some interesting reading on the value of volunteering, including health benefits.

Great additional material:

  1. The Mental Health Foundation in the UK published a detailed 44 page report on Relationships in the 21st century, which they call ‘The Forgotten Foundation of Mental Health and Wellbeing’. The report has interesting findings as well as useful tips. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/relationships-21st-century-forgotten-foundation-mental-health-and-wellbeing 
  2. Sara Honn Qualls, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. Her article is focused on aging, and the effects of isolation on older people, but the findings are equally applicable to anyone.
  3. Coco Khan writes in the Guardian about how we can connect offline and online friendships.
  4. What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of  75-year-old Harvard Study on Adult Development, one of the longest of its kind, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction.