Some years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers. In the book, Gladwell set out to write the "story of success." He chronicled what made certain individuals and organizations achieve high levels of success. The book was a big hit. In part, because Gladwell is a master story-teller, but also because the factors that cause success aren't always what you think.
To prove his point, Gladwell recounted the story of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, primarily populated by Italians who immigrated to the United States from Southern Italy. They named their new American hometown Roseto after their Italian counterpart. At a time when the country and surrounding populations were experiencing epidemic instances of heart disease, Roseto residents were virtually unscathed.
Hoping to learn the source of their great health, a study was commissioned to answer that question. Was it their Mediterranean diet? Was it physical labor that conditioned their bodies? Was it genetics, geography or altitude?
It was none of that. The answer lay in how the people lived. For those who’ve never read the book, this is your Spoiler Alert. Here it comes.
It was community.
The people of Roseto lived in a tight-knit community of extended families, who worked, played, worshiped, had constant fellowship and lived life together.
Yes; togetherness was the secret sauce. It turns out that communal living—real, human interaction is good for your health. The researchers named this phenomenon The Roseto Effect.
Reading the story of Roseto reminded me of my own childhood in Jamaica, and in the Jamaican immigrant community I joined when I first came to America.
In my community people lived in extended families. The more the merrier. It was a cultural norm and indeed, a desire that families either cohabited or at least, lived nearby. This allowed for constant interaction, family support and community building. It also occasioned impromptu get-togethers, cooking large meals for friends and family, or just hanging out for no reason at all.
In the Jamaican culture, we had the practice of what we called “rowing a boat.” I’m not sure who originated the term, but what this meant was any gathering of people was a good time to cook a meal for all to enjoy.
Someone would provide the meat or fish; another would get the starch or vegetables. A neighbor may chip in the oil. But the end result was always a delicious meal, and an even more tasty time of fellowship and social bonding.
There was never any planning or formality about it. If friends were hanging out, someone would say, “Let’s row a boat,” and everyone knew what that meant. These are some of the happiest memories of my life—friends eating and laughing together; spending time into the wee hours, just because.
One of my personal goals is improving my social connections. It seems to me that our society is increasingly connected and separated at the same time. There's all this supposed connectivity online, but the online environment also drives us apart. It can trick us into losing the human touch.
Add to that, the frantic pace of modern life. What usually gets sacrificed is social time with others. There’s little room for connecting with friends or for spontaneity. That is not only terrible for your social life; it can be dangerous to your health.
Me and my wife recently held an unplanned party at my house. We didn’t do anything special. We called up some friends or knocked on some neighbors’ doors and invited them over. I actually bumped into a neighbor while walking my dog and asked him to come over that night.
Here’s what happened. He came and was the life of the party. He had great stories and a terrific sense of humor. Who knew?
At our party we did nothing other than break bread together and talked. It was a wonderful evening. One of the best I’ve had since moving into my neighborhood. We plan to do more unplanned parties. No fuss. Just come over.
As if to make my point, a few days later, a friend of mine sent me the following Boston Globe headline:
"The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness."
Stop and think about that for a moment. Isolation can be more dangerous than smoking!
But the reverse is also true. Living in community with others is actually good for your health. Mutual support and interaction lowers stress, the secret killer of people worldwide. There’s a positive physiological effect that even science now recognizes.
The question is: have you recognized it in your life?
As I finish this post, I’m headed to play a round of golf with some buddies this afternoon. I thought of several ways to sabotage it. Then I remembered the main theme of this post.
So I told myself, "in order to get the most out of yourself this year, you have to be around. Hanging with your buddies today will do far more in that area than sitting around in isolation obsessing over projects and deadlines.”
Yes, sometimes you're the teacher and the student!
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