Building Community

It’s fall, which means the leaves are dying. The air is becoming chilly. The days are shorter. And the holidays are-a-comin’. And what do the holidays mean? Family, friends, shopping in crowded spaces, awkward conversations, laughter, arguments, crying, hurt feelings, fun, exhaustion, and what can feel like unnecessary social interactions. We will all have moments where we are tempted to order it all online, call out, cancel or just stay in bed… but we shouldn’t because fall is the opening season for the “good life.”


One of the most life-changing Ted Talks for me was “What makes a good life?” by Robert Waldinger.

 

"The director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction.” The study observes both men from Harvard and also men from a low-income section of Boston throughout their lives. It’s worth the watch, but spoiler alert - the way to a good life is not wealth, power, or things - it is relationships. In this study, he talks explicitly about the power of healthy marital/long-term relationships. At one point, he states the researchers were able to predict longevity not on cholesterol levels but on healthy relationships. And the refreshing part is that "healthy" does not mean absent of arguments or spats. 


In life’s chaos and constant demand, it’s so easy to put relationships on hold. It’s easy to see people's “stuff” as distractions and interruptions to meeting our goals. But every study on human long term survival is based on human interaction and community. So although rugged individualism is all the rage and can get you tons of social media likes, it’s not what equates to happiness and long life. 

Suicide and loneliness

Loneliness is as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. -Blue Zones of Happiness

A few years ago, I started working from home. It was this Capricorn-introvert’s utopia - home, work with fewer distractions, and no need to “rush” out of the office. I was in absolute Heaven. 


Then we moved. 


The “chill” season at work began. All the “distractions” were gone. No more impromptu cousin and friend visits. No more water cooler conversations. No more back-to-back recruitment calls. No coffee runs. No Tuesday night girlfriend dinners. No more in-person meetings (where I could exchange side-eyes and inside jokes with work besties). No more church crew. 


Quickly my sweet solitude became isolating and lonely. I was utterly lost and stir-crazy. 

Thankfully, I communicated my feelings to a virtual co-worker that happened to live across the country from her friends and family, and she revealed the same feelings. She also sent me the most intriguing article, “Here's Why Ski Towns Are Seeing More Suicides.” Morbid, I know. 


But the article was earth-shattering. The places listed with high suicide rates were voted some of the “best” places to live and are towns many see as paradise. These areas have healthy eating options, clean air, outdoor activities, and are associated with “lively” perceptions. The list included places that Keith Morrison (Dateline) would narrate: “nothing bad ever happens here.” But according to the article, something wrong does happen in these towns… individualism to an extreme. In these populations, people tend to isolate themselves, live for (the illusion of) the “good” life, don’t have intergenerational relationships, aren’t apart of worship or social groups, lack a support system, and engage in short-lived romantic relationships. All of these things are amusing to fantasize about, but in reality they can equate to suicide.


In fact, what we know about happiness and longevity is that places of worship often lead to strong social ties (stress relief and support). Long-term relationships can be a space of safety and reliance. And intergenerational relationships are a key to more vibrant lives for children, middle-aged folks (care-giver), and senior citizens.

It’s not Quantity - it’s Quality


Now, I know in the world of the three-second read many folks will skim the top of Shalom & Polepole articles before moving on. That's cool, but the one thing I pray they don’t take away from this piece is that tons of friends and a life partner are the keys to longevity. Superficially, they wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s not right either. Longevity and happiness are tied to, potentially, a small group of strong relationships. 


According to the Blue Zones of Happiness, a few active relationships with good friends contribute more to health and happiness than a bunch of casual acquaintances. But it’s CRITICAL to surround yourself with equally yoked friends, because your friends’ thoughts, behaviors, and satisfaction are highly contagious. You’re 15% more likely to be happy if one of your close friends is happy. And the closer (location-wise) your friends are, the more contagious their behaviors and happiness. For example: if a friend that lives within a mile of you becomes happy, you are more than 25% more likely also to become happy. Within the study of habits, they found that if a person drinks often, tells racist jokes, or smokes - their close friends are three times more likely to pick up the practices. And the same is true for physical attributes - when a close friend/relationship becomes obese, their most intimate relationships are three times more likely to do the same. 

Let’s all just move to Costa Rica

101 year old in The Nicoya Peninsula. Gianluca Colla/Getty Images

Hands down, my favorite longevity study is done in Costa Rica. I am obsessed with all things Costa-Rica-life-expectancy. I will be doing an article on my fascination soon. Nevertheless, Costa Rica not only ranks high in longevity but also in happiness.


Seriously, watch this video and tell me that you don’t want to be at least 90 on the Nicoya Peninsula! Folks can live out their culture and values daily. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of assimilation and there isn’t a crazy rush to accumulate a lot. They eat the foods that culturally feel right and hang with people who enjoy their company. 


Now, when I was experiencing isolation, I couldn’t up and move to Costa Rica but I could practice expert advice on likeability and cultivating relationships. The information isn't mind-blowing, but the actions are becoming rarer in our society. 

  • Smile often

  • Make eye contact

  • Say “hi” or “happy holidays” 

  • Introduce yourself 

  • When there is kinetic and harmonious energy between another person and yourself, seize it

Personally, I have always found richness in seasonal relationships. My aim isn’t lifelong, but my intention is to build a community by creating spaces for myself and for others to enjoy support, vulnerability, a laugh, a cry, a side-eye, and all things "relationship" in the season that we have together. While establishing local relationships, I’m especially mindful of nurturing my longstanding and deep relationships. 

Holidays, Community, and Longevity 

Unless your family and friends are super non-confrontational, incredibly polite, or the conversation is tightly controlled, there are bound to be moments of tension and discomfort. There may be disagreements and tears, but in that is the complexity of life. Setting the expectation of “perfect” relationships and interactions during the holiday season will only lead to isolation, loneliness, and longing for something that doesn’t exist. In the messiness we learn to say “sorry,” to reflect and see things more clearly, accept an apology, or realize that it’s time to move on and seek a new and warm community elsewhere. I have several friends who attend their friends’ family celebrations or volunteer somewhere during the holidays. Regardless of where you go, when you’re there be healthy - not (only) in what you eat, but how you engage with others. 

Listen to grandma's memories, color with the little niece/nephew, debate with the cousin, be honest about how things are going, and allow yourself to be whole. And (in my Brené Brown voice) every time it gets to be a lot, remember that you are enough. You deserve to be loved and to love - you are worthy of belonging. 

I am by no means an expert on longevity, but I do watch the late Richard Overton’s short film showcase, “109-Year-Old Veteran and His Secrets to Life Will Make You Smile” as often as possible. Boy, he really does make me smile - a lot. And the one thing that strikes me each time I watch is his zeal for life. He’s out (driving) in the community - mingling, laughing, and interacting. Let's live life with our people fully.


Happy relationshiping, friends! Shalom. 

Shelby