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Health Matters: How human connection impacts our health

By Kiersten Ahlm


In Okinawa, Japan, a Blue Zone (regions with higher concentrations of centenarians), longevity is attributed to their practice of the moai tradition. A moai is a support group that is formed in childhood and lasts a lifetime. They originated hundreds of years ago as a means for a village’s financial support to fund community projects or to help a member who is facing financial hardship. Today they are more of a social support network where members meet anywhere from a few times a week to a few times a day to gossip, give advice and sometimes provide financial support. Each member of the moai recognizes that they all need each other equally and that having this support takes some of the stress out of life.

Another powerful example of the magic of human connection comes from the community of Roseto, Pennsylvania. In 1961, Roseto was an extremely tight-knit Italian American community that caught the attention of Stewart Wolf, who was then the head of medicine at the University of Oklahoma, due to its extremely low rate of heart attacks compared to the rest of the area. When Wolf discovered that this community embraced a high-risk lifestyle, which included cigarettes, copious amounts of wine and a diet of meatballs and fried cheese, he decided to further investigate. What he found was that this community strongly valued family ties: Elders were held in high regard, housewives were respected and there was no “keeping up with the Joneses.” Translation — there was less stress. As this community became more Americanized and the traditional Italian family structure went by the wayside, the rate of heart attacks became similar to those of the surrounding towns.

Humans are wired for connection. This dates back to our tribal days when being part of a tribe meant protection from rival tribes — you know, the whole “strength in numbers” concept. Sadly, we have ignored this very basic human construct, and loneliness and isolation are on the rise, according to a study done by the American Psychological Association. Dr. Michelle C. Carlson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, calls this uptick in loneliness “a public health issue.” The pandemic has worsened the situation. With people being forced to isolate, our connection muscles have atrophied.

This is a problem. Loneliness has more adverse effects on our health than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure. It has also been linked to depression, anxiety and, later in life, cognitive decline. Conversely, people who feel satisfied by their connections reportedly experience higher self-esteem, are happier and — as we have seen in Okinawa, Japan and Roseto, Pennsylvania — live longer.

The quality of your connections matters. It has nothing to do with how popular you are on social media or the quantity of friends you have. I love researcher Brené Brown’s definition of connection: “Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.”

However, that’s not to say that “weak ties” to people don’t also have their pluses. Weak ties are connections with people that are regular but surface-level interactions. They can often give you that social fix without the complications that close friendships can bring. I will never forget my strongest weak tie, which was the mailman who serviced the neighborhood my office was in in Boston. I would always run into him on my way to lunch, and it was a bright spot in my day. He would talk about his wife and kids, and I would talk about my dating woes. We never saw each other outside of that context, but he obviously made a big impression on me. When I left Boston, he gave me a beautiful picture of the Boston skyline. Bottom line — don’t underestimate the power of the weak tie.

Now that the world has opened back up, we can get back to connecting with each other — hopefully with a newfound appreciation for even the slightest connection. Feel like you need some guidance on how to get back out there? Below are a few ideas that will get you back in the saddle.

Volunteer: Volunteering is a great way to meet like-minded people. I met one of my best friends on my college Alternative Spring Break trip (which was a really, really long time ago). People who volunteer have also been shown to have lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem.

Adopt a dog: Not only does having a pet decrease loneliness, but walking your dog or taking him to the dog park is also an easy way to meet other dog owners. Our very own Charleston Animal Society rescues animals in need of a loving home and is a great place to find your new best friend. Don’t want your own dog? Offer to help walk a friend’s dog. As a dog owner, I know this would, from time to time, be appreciated.

Join a Meetup group: Meetup has been around for 20 years, so there’s definitely something to it. Charleston Meetup groups include everything from craft brewers to tiny house enthusiasts. Finding a Meetup group focused on one of your interests ensures a way to connect with people who are in your “tribe,” so to speak.

Reach out: Taking the initiative to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while can be unnerving, but it can also be totally worth it. Don’t assume they are avoiding you. Send them a text and suggest coffee or a walk. Maybe even challenge yourself to reach out to a different person each week.

Join a community garden: Gardening is incredible for so many reasons: It gets you outside in the sunshine, can be great exercise, is good for the environment and can also be very bonding when done in a community setting. I love just visiting one community garden when I go home to Hilton Head — you can see how everyone works together to make it a sanctuary of sorts. Our gardening columnist, Louisa Cameron, offers all kinds of expertise you can bring with you to your community garden!

There are so many people out there experiencing loneliness right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Expanding your social connections might mean venturing outside of your comfort zone, but the benefits will be life changing.

Kiersten Ahlm is an integrative nutrition coach who specializes in blood sugar balance. To find out more about her services, check out her website at www.kahlmcoaching.com.

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