By Jennifer Bowen
If you were to list the top predictors of a long life, what would they be? Do pictures of gym advertisements come to mind?
Most of us would think (having listened obediently to our doctors and parents) healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and avoiding activities like smoking, drinking or recreational drugs would be at the top of the list, right?
You may have also thought about mental positivity or optimism, or maybe geographical location – taking into account access to medical care or clear air or greenspace. There is no shortage of wonderful material to read on any of these issues.
All good, and certainly these things do contribute to well-being, but I’m sure you’ve guessed that this blog is likely about something else. That ‘something else’ was a delightful surprise to me recently while watching a compelling TED Talk.
I partly loved this particular talk because it validated a suspicion I’ve had for years – that eating well, ingesting large quantities of kale for example, will not guarantee a long, healthy life.
Confession – I’m that grumpy person who gets bristly when I feel lectured about healthy eating. I grew up in the 70s, in a home with a kitchen fully stocked by our local health food store. Buckwheat pancakes and carob bars were our treats, and millet cereal for breakfast was our staple. I only tasted carbonated drinks at other children’s birthday parties – you can imagine the wonder. While kale wasn’t trendy then, if it had been, I could have had it in my lunch, between slices of my very brown bread with bean spouts.
One could argue that we are living in a culture where striving for health and wellness – the best of diet, the best of exercise – is our highest value. This ‘very best-ness’ pours over into the best of parenting, the best of thinking, the best of habits, hoping that these measures will perhaps prevent distress, disease or pain.
This impressive TED talk was presented by Susan Pinker, a psychologist from Montreal who has released a book called The Village Effect. Her TED talk is titled ‘The Secret to Living Longer Might be Your Social Life.’ You might have guessed, I was delighted that kale was not in the title. Her mention of social hooked me.
In it, she shares about her research of an Italian village where a disproportionate number of adults live to the age of 100 years. Susan points out that this population lives very close together, with loved ones sharing homes across generations. They bump into relatives and neighbours daily, and everyone knows everyone’s name.
She indicated that some of these individuals over 100 were not cheerful or optimistic people. They did not eat organic, and they were not necessarily athletic. Their social connection to their loved ones and village was the common element. This validated for me what I read about weekly at Shalem. The growing body of literature of attachment theory addresses how central relationships are to both physical, mental and emotional health.
Connection and relationship are core values at Shalem. These values shape our staff meetings, our waiting room, our trainings, our parties and of course, our work. We understand that being designed for relationships and for connection with others is key to wellness, to wholeness. And, the loss of relationship, the break of a bond, the loss of a loved one or community is deeply painful.
We live in a strange time, positioned in modernism, perceiving dependency in relationships as pathological. We hear that ‘needing’ connection is weak. I hear echoes of this in my life and work. However, research continues to demonstrate that those surrounded by connections, attachment and bonds to family, friends and their village are the most resilient, most healthy.
“It is an ironic paradox: being dependent makes us more independent.”
― Sue Johnson, The Love Secret: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships
I’m not saying that eating badly is okay, although that would be a fun argument to make. Truth be told, I’ve found some great recipes for kale, and have made my peace with it (sincere apologies to any kale-loving reader I may have offended). I am saying, however, that I am thrilled for the growing shift of focus from physical solutions to solving the health puzzle with deeper, relational goals.
Next time I make tasty kale salad, I’ll make a larger batch to share.
Jennifer Bowen, M.Div., RMFT, is the Clinical Director of Shalem Mental Health Network’s Counselling Services.