If you’ve read some of my previous Monday posts, you know that I am intrigued by the notion of longevity. Just three weeks ago, I wrote about the magic number “100” and referenced a NY Times article that featured several centenarians. Whenever I talk with people about the idea of living to 100, I sometimes hear what I have come to understand: that not everyone really wants to live that long. They imagine a life of weakness, illness and nothing to do but wait to, well, die. I’ll be the first to say that I would not want to spend my days feeling terrible, but I am desperate to know what makes some people get to the sad and awful frame of mind that we now know can actually affect people on a physiological level. Data tells us that only one out of five thousand people live to be 100 years old but that many people are living longer and healthier, pushing life expectancies to new limits. And these people are not beating the odds just with good DNA.
Dan Buettner is a writer for National Geographic, an explorer, and a longevity coach. I never knew there was such a thing as a longevity coach, but Dan is this guy who studies longevity all over the world and, along with fellow researchers, has mapped out hotspots of human health and vitality which he calls Blue Zones. You can visit the Blue Zone web site to find out about all kinds of things that these people are studying. Blue zones are places where people not only live a long time but places where people live long, active lives. In his TED talk, “How To Live To Be 100,” Dan Buettner shares the communities of Sardinia, Italy and Okinawa, Japan, two places in which he and his colleagues have found an abundance of healthy people who live far beyond average life expectancies. Tellingly, the photographs he has collected show a community of happy people of all ages, gathered together doing stuff.
His talk is nearly 20 minutes long and, toward the end, he illustrates his findings with a longevity pyramid (the full pyramid can be seen at marker 18:03). What I find to be one the most striking aspect of his studies is that the base of the pyramid, the foundation of a long healthy life, according to his research, is the “Right Tribe.” I love this. The Right Tribe. Whether they be your family, your friends, or the people with whom you surround your self — this tribe of folks can influence your life in a really big way, a way that can actually affect your longevity, for better or for worse. It’s just like what your mother said to you about running with the right or the wrong crowd. But, I’d argue that it’s not just finding the Right Tribe, but being the right kind of tribe member, too; that it’s a two-way street and you have to give your own positive influence in equal measure for the good of the tribe.
So, how can behavior really change us on a cellular level?
The scientist, Dr. Candace Pert studies, at great length, how “the ‘bodymind’ functions as a single psychosomatic network of information molecules which control our health and physiology.” Pert says that, while we are “hard-wired for bliss,” we can become addicted to our predominant emotion, whatever it might be… addicted to the speed of our life, or lack thereof, and stuck maintaining that speed. Our “soft addictions,” for example, like obsessive cleaning, getting lost in cyberspace, infatuated video game playing or compulsive exercise, through their emotional impact, could have detrimental physiological effects if gone uninterrupted by the individual’s social contacts, or, in Buettner’s term, the members of the “tribe.” Soft addictions, then, could lead to brain changes like depression, chemical releases of anxiety hormones that alter organ function and necessitate medications that cause side effects, perhaps leading to more behavioral addictions, thereby creating a chain of events that can lead to some very real, negative health issues. The people around us, however, can positively influence us away from our soft addictions so that they don’t snowball into the worst case scenarios.
The notion that one’s tribe can positively influence bad behaviors is interesting to me in light of recent scientific findings about our social networks that show us the powerful, physiological evidence of the negative flip-side. Harvard professor and health care policy specialist, Nicholas Christakis joined James Fowler, social researcher and professor at UC San Diego, to create the 2009 book, Connected. Through some pretty extensive research and exhaustive data collected for more than three decades by some other scientists on a project called The Framingham Heart Study, Christakis and Fowler came to the conclusion that our actions are only partially the result of free will. They determined that a phenomenon called “social contagion” is increasingly influential upon our behavior and, in turn, our health and longevity, and that it ripples out to other social layers from the origin. In other words, if my friend smokes, that might make me start smoking, and I can, in turn, make someone else start smoking who can make another person…. and so on. And these social connections are so powerful that, to put it bluntly, there is clear proof that our friends can actually make us fat.
What hasn’t been made clear to me is how all this begins and who in the group is in charge of all this influence!?! It reminds me of the moments I’m driving and wonder: who was the first guy who had to rubberneck on this freeway and slow us all down? But, I’m not sure if that is really the important part to understand. I think it might be more important to come to the realization that we really are more than the sum of our parts and that a balanced combination of social awareness and being a good tribe member, within one individual, can do some really amazing things for our brains, and even our bones, muscles, skin and organs.
Having just come off of the Thanksgiving holiday, I am giving thanks for my own tribe, some of whom I was able to share last Thursday with. And, every Thanksgiving morning, the town where I live hosts a 5K Turkey Trot in which I have participated for eleven years now. This event is the largest fundraiser for a local organization that assists individuals with special needs through education and employment, and every year the attendance grows. If you have ever been to a Turkey Trot then you may know what I am about to describe…
On one chilly November Thursday morning, people of every age, shape, size and color join each other in a celebration of thanks-giving through exercise. Some run, some walk, some actually fly it would appear, as the first to cross the finish line did it in under just 15 minutes! But everyone moves from one place on the planet to another because, whether fast or slow, they will do it together, on this one day. People spectate from the sidelines, cheering, holding handmade signs and snapping pictures, neighbors bundle up and come out along the route to play Queen’s We Are The Champions from an old boom-box, volunteers hand out t-shirts, bagels, bananas and man water stations, call out times, and direct the runners. Even dogs join in on this 3.2 mile event, tongues lolling and tails wagging as they run along with their two-footed friends!
These kinds of social experiences fill me with such positive energy and emotions and, on a day like Thanksgiving, they carry me right into my celebration dinner where I can’t help but share them with others. There is a point on the course where participants reach the crest of a hill and can look down at the huge, moving crowd. This year, our town’s Turkey Trot had just shy of 4,000 people! It was amazing to behold. Despite the data that says that only one of us in that big sea of smiling, running or walking people will make it to 100, I felt, for that one morning, like we were all there, one tribe, in our very own Blue Zone, all on our way to long, healthy lives. Because, that is the power of positive influence, the power of good social contagion!
And, as they handed out the awards, and we stood around together, telling each other our plans for the day, shivering and holding our paper cups of coffee, the sky magically filled with the first million snowflakes of the season.
So, if you’ve gotten this far, then I’ll tell you that all writers are happy to have readership, any readership, and for that I am grateful and sending out much thanks-giving into the cyber ether. But, if any of this blathering strikes a chord with you, then, perhaps, the best part of this kooky project of mine is that, one day a week, we get to be members of the same tribe and share the effects of positive influence. On your mark, get set, go! Finish line: The Blue Zone.
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about who’s in your tribe and notice the ways you all influence each other.