As advanced students of wellness, MBG readers probably already know how to maximize optimal health and longevity: don’t smoke, exercise, eat plant-based, and manage stress. But do you know one of the strongest predictors of whether or not we achieve long and vital lives?
It's the strength of our connections to other people at home, work, houses of worship, and at play.
We're social creatures and appear to thrive when we have strong bonds. For example, in research involving over 300,000 people, the stronger an individual’s social network, the greater the freedom from death. In fact, survival in the most socially connected individuals was improved by 50% compared to those without strong social ties. In other words: Friendship is a powerful healing force.
I am aware of examples of groups who've made serious and positive lifestyle changes thanks to peer support. When Dr. Dean Ornish showed that plant-based diets could reverse severe heart disease, his subjects bonded by meeting in small groups to discuss dealing with many lifestyle changes. When Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn gathered patients in the Cleveland area for the same purpose, they met around a meal twice a month and created bonds, propelling participants to success.
One of the most powerful examples of the central role for social networks in the creation of positive change is the faith based lifestyle program at Saddleback Church in California known as The Daniel Plan. At the request of Pastor Rick Warren, Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Dr. Daniel Amen designed a lifestyle change program built into thousands of small discussion groups that were already present in this megachurch. The gist: no smoking, fresh, whole foods, exercise, and stress management. It was launched via a website and videos sent to over 16,000 members of the church. The plan has a community component, and included small discussion groups where people could share challenges and successes, swap recipes and exercise ideas, and share meals together.
Overall, more than 250,000 pounds of weight were lost and many attribute the success to the small groups for insuring that this amazing lifestyle plan was actually adopted. The project continues and it's well worth your time to visit the free website. The tremendous library of health tips is a treasure open to all. (In fact, I got permission last year from the church to adapt The Daniel Plan for the first time to a synagogue.) With the support of our clergy and other health professionals, we have run the program several times and have seen the impact of learning and sharing in small groups.
The impersonal nature of modern neighborhoods, virtual workplaces, and online communication has separated us to some degree form close bonds with others. The Daniel Plan and other health experiments based on social connections and interdependency demonstrate that we are still a tribe, stronger together when sharing a common purpose than as individuals. We actually live longer when we take the time to develop many connections in our lives.
There is an African proverb that states “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” Grabbing someone’s hand and walking together through challenges may be the most powerful health tool of all.