Why joining a community will help you live longer.
It has been long understood that as human beings we need to be surrounded by people who like and understand us. We need to be touched, and we need basic human contact. Having a community of people we can count on to have our backs when something goes wrong has been essential for survival. Traditionally it has been our family, extended family and neighbours who have made up our clan. These folks have a common background and can relate to who we are. But it turns out that community is even more than that.
Harvard University has done arguably the longest study on adult development in history. It’s still going strong and there is a great Ted Talk done by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger who is the study’s fourth director. Harvard has spent 75 years asking over 700 men what makes them healthy and happy. Every two years they asked men (aged from their teens right through to their nineties) where they are in their lives and what was important to them. By talking to them and their families, and asking them to share what really mattered, the clearest picture of what they valued throughout their lives has been created. The study went beyond surveys. These men had their brain’s scanned, their blood tested and their medical records examined. After 75 years, they have tens of thousands of data points.
The key message that has come out of this study to date is that good relationships keep us healthier and happier. And good relationships don’t just make us a little more joyous and more likely to age well, but fundamentally improve our health and happiness. “Forget wealth and fame” says Waldinger, “good relationships are what has the most impact on our happiness.” There were three take-aways about relationships that came through in all of this research. As you might assume, social connections are good for us and loneliness kills. People who are connected to family, friends and community live longer and are healthier. Adults who are lonely have a declining brain function, their health starts to decline in midlife, and they live shorter lives. The second important insight is that it doesn’t matter how many people you have around you, it’s the quality of those relationships. Constant conflict is very bad for our health. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships are protective. And relationships can mean a significant partner, groups of partners, communal living, groups of friends etc. It absolutely shows that the quality of your life is the quality of your relationships. Waldinger stated that“ participants who were the most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80 no matter what their cholesterol numbers or other health markers looked like”. Lastly the study found that good relationships don’t just affect your health, they also affect your brain. If you can count on the people in your life to have your back you are most likely to keep your marbles as you get older. It’s an anti-dementia protocol. The people who fared the best were those who leaned into relationships and found their community.
We are seeing this in action in our community group we started called The Ducklings. A community is any group of individuals connected to each other by like interests. The Ducklings are a local, adult group for people who want date nights and fun, sexy adventures. We think it’s a gathering of new friends that’s a little saucy but warm, friendly and giving. We have been astounded at how fast people have joined. They are signing up in droves looking for a safe group in which to get to know new people. With the Ducklings, the goal is to try and be a little sexy so it’s edgier than a service club like Rotary. But it stays well on this side of socially appropriate and the emphasis is on having a safe environment.
Being a Duckling gives members a chance to try out new, fun activities about town. Initially couples came because they wanted a place to have fun with their own partner without the worry of planning new date ideas. And for singles, it was about getting out with like-minded potential partners. For anyone new to the city they often don’t have any real connections beyond work. And it’s lonely. You go from work to home. Work to the grocery store to home. If you can’t make friends, life gets very narrow. And as the Harvard study has shown, even people with a significant relationship need community. As therapists, we believe that one person can’t meet all your needs and it’s unrealistic to expect them to.
Beyond the healthier and happier reasons that Waldinger and his team has outlined over the last 75 years, what specifically can the Ducklings or other community groups do that is so important? A community of people with the same interests share intimate conversations, social events, and deep relationships. Having a strong network of similar people presents options for a night out. It gives you a friend to call when times are rough or simply someone to laugh-out-loud with on a Friday night.
Your community tells you when something is working – and when something isn’t. Without a community you won’t receive positive feedback or get reined in when a behavior becomes an issue. It is part of the continuing socialization process of fitting in. As human beings, we need a sense of belonging. Community is where we find comfort in difficult times. What’s interesting for us as therapists is that the group becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Meaning that the group takes on a life of it’s own and connections happen. Life gets better for the members in many ways that wouldn’t have happened without the group existing in the first place.
So the moral is find your people. We invite you to come and be a Duckling (www.wearetheducklings.com). But if we are not your people then find the group that is. Your life will depend on it.