Are you spending time with the right people for your health and happiness? Don’t underestimate the power of positive people.
While many of us focus primarily on diet and exercise to achieve better health, science suggests that our well-being also is influenced by the company we keep. Researchers have found that certain health behaviors appear to be contagious and that our social networks — in person and online — can influence obesity, anxiety and overall happiness. A recent report found that a person’s exercise routine was strongly influenced by his or her social network.
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, has studied the health habits of people who live in so-called blue zones — regions of the world where people live far longer than the average. He noted that positive friendships are a common theme in the blue zones.
“Friends can exert a measurable and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that a diet never can,” Mr. Buettner said.
In Okinawa, Japan, a place where the average life expectancy for women is around 90, the oldest in the world, people form a kind of social network called a moai — a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support for a lifetime.
“It’s a very powerful idea,” Mr. Buettner said. “Traditionally, their parents put them into moais when they are born, and they take a lifelong journey together.”
In a moai, the group benefits when things go well, such as by sharing a bountiful crop, and the group’s families support one another when a child gets sick or someone dies. They also appear to influence one another’s lifelong health behaviors, according to this article.
Mr. Buettner is working with federal and state health officials, including the former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, to create moais in two dozen cities around the country. He recently spent time in Fort Worth, Tex., where several residents have formed walking moais — groups of people who meet regularly to walk and socialize.
“We’re finding that in some of these cities, you can just put people together who want to change health behaviors and organize them around walking or a plant-based potluck,” he said. “We nudge them into hanging out together for 10 weeks. We have created moais that are now several years old, and they are still exerting a healthy influence on members’ lives.”
The key to building a successful moai is to start with people who have similar interests, passions and values. The Blue Zone team tries to group people based on geography and work and family schedules to start. Then they ask them a series of questions to find common interests. Is your perfect vacation a cruise or a backpacking trip? Do you like rock ’n’ roll or classical music? Do you subscribe to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal?
“You stack the deck in favor of a long-term relationship,” said Mr. Buettner.
Carol Auerbach of New York City, noted that surrounding herself with positive people has helped her cope with the loss of two husbands over the years. Ms. Auerbach was widowed at 30, when her children were just 2 and 5. With the support of her family and friends, and her own tenacity, she was able to support her family, and she eventually remarried. And then in 1992, her second husband died unexpectedly. To cope the second time, she focused on volunteer work and contributing to her community.
Ms. Auerbach said she believes that she learned to have a positive outlook from her mother, a Holocaust survivor who left Germany at the age of 19 and never saw her parents again.