Village peopleby Sally Blundell
What’s the secret to living a long and healthy life? Canadian clinical psychologist Susan Pinker says how you interact with others is the key.
Life is hard in the small Sardinian village of Villagrande Strisaili. The men, writes Canadian clinical psychologist Susan Pinker, live “hard-scrabble lives” as farmers and labourers, the women cook and look after others right into old age. But life is also long. Men as well as women frequently live past 100, a generation of octogenarians still care for their parents.
Why? Pinker points to the strong social networks, the support given to the elderly and the constant companionship they enjoy. “Getting older in central Sardinia is an intensely communal affair.”
More than alcohol and cigarette consumption, stress, how much we weigh and exercise, whether we take flu shots, the strongest predictor for living a long and healthy life, she says on the phone from Montreal, “is social integration with a regular diverse group of people. Second is social intimacy – being with people you can depend on, the ones who have your back when the going gets rough.”
In her latest book, The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, Pinker, author of The Sexual Paradox and sister of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, draws on psychotherapy, neuroscience, human geography and animal behaviour to show that face-to-face human contact is vital for health, happiness and physical and psychological resilience.
Her thesis starts with the very young. As babies, we are hardwired to watch, learn, copy and interact. Skin-to-skin contact relaxes both parent and baby, increases milk production and reduces the likelihood of post-partum depression.
In childhood and during teenage years, self-esteem, social skills, language and cognitive development are all improved by close family, peer and classroom interactions. As with junk food, she says, hours spent on the internet are convenient but not enriching – they won’t improve academic results, won’t make you happier or healthier. They may even induce Facebook depression, that “bilious stew of envy and anomie that engulfs people who click through online signs of their friends’ achievement in the mistaken belief that such voyeurism is a form of social glue. It’s not.”
As we age, strong social networks affect our ability to prevent, deal with and even recover from illness, including cancer, heart disease and stroke. Regular face-to-face interactions boost our immune system and rejig the way genes that govern behaviour and resilience are expressed. Close physical proximity also increases our production of oxytocin and vasopressin, two neuropeptides that help counter stress, reduce pain and inflammation and repair wounds.
ALONE AGAIN, UNNATURALLY
But despite this mounting body of evidence, at almost every stage of life, Pinker says, “we are being steered away from people to a more solitary existence”. A Finnish study of 7000 people found that loneliness was strongly linked to living alone.
In New Zealand, single-person households are the fastest-growing type, comprising nearly 24% of the total in 2013 and expected to reach 29% in 2031. Over a third of 45- to 64-year-olds live alone, the same as those in the 65-84 age bracket.
And we are feeling the pinch. Here, as in Canada, the US and the UK, about 10% of the population over 65 reports feeling lonely all or most of the time. Young people are particularly vulnerable – according to the 2010 General Social Survey, 18% of young New Zealanders feel lonely at least some of the time.
These figures are based on a perception of loneliness. They acknowledge that you can be surrounded by 300 people in a lecture theatre, or be in a long-term relationship, and still feel lonely. Likewise, you can live a relatively isolated life and not feel lonely. But according to a recent report published in Psychological Science, objective measures of human contact are also predictors of longevity. Living alone or simply spending a lot of time on your own erodes your physical and psychological resilience.
So, trash our laptops and head for a hilltop village? “Not at all. I use ‘village’ as a metaphor,” says Pinker. “It doesn’t matter whether you live in a village, in a city or in the country, you have to have a diverse group of people you meet on a regular basis, which gets you out of your little bubble.
“Something as simple as going to the same coffee shop or library at the same time every day can build that village. That integrated social contact is incredibly important for sustaining good health. If you have a village around you, you won’t feel lonely or isolated, but it is not something society emphasises.”
THE CITY VILLAGE
As more of us are lured to life in the city, that integrated social contact is becoming harder to find. Already 86% of New Zealanders live in a city. Where once a sense of social cohesiveness was facilitated by the church or the volunteer sector, opportunities for social engagement have been eroded by growing secularism, demands of work and the ascendancy of the car.
University of Auckland geography professor Robin Kearns says people pause and encounter each other “in spaces that are not used in a controlled way”. US urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes these spaces as “third places” – affordable, accessible, informal gathering places away from the home and job where people can relax and engage, where “unrelated people relate”.
For some, it may be the local pub or cafe, for others a library or skatepark. Cultural groups, sports clubs and farmers’ markets, says Kearns, are beginning to fill a social function “beyond their raison d’etre”.
“In a paradoxical way farmers’ markets model less developed countries and the past rather than some great modernist idea of futuristic cities. They take a position once held by the village green, a place where people encounter each other. And anything that brings people together in opportunistic ways and gives us a reason not to drive somewhere has got to be good.”
In her book, Pinker points to the central square in an Italian town as long having been “the one-stop gathering place for gossip, shopping, spiritual guidance, a magnet for social interaction … the square’s primary function has been to assemble its residents at de facto crossroads”.
Around the world urban designers are now promoting more participatory, people-friendly, traffic-calmed, walkable city centres. As promoted by Denmark’s Gehl Architects, the efficiency-driven lines of post-war modernism are being softened, made more flexible and intimate, through the use of wider footpaths, more public seating, street art and human-scale building frontages.
Beyond the parks and piazzas, says principal urban designer at Christchurch City Council Hugh Nicholson, streets have an important role in how a city functions.
“We live in our houses, we work in private businesses, but where we meet and where we interact and where that village behaviour happens is in public spaces. A city has to allow for that. We might drive into town, ride a bike, catch a bus – but we all end up in the public space of the street. That is where you interact with other people, where you have those chance encounters that make cities rich and creative and complex.”
THE MISTAKES OF THE PAST
Professor of human geography Harvey Perkins is wary – of nostalgia, of the whole village ethos promoted by many new developments. Pre-industrial village life, he says, was no easy street. Social hierarchies were rigid, privacy rare, futures sealed.
“The city characterises the opposite of that. It’s more anonymous, but it’s also a place where you can be yourself. That is why big cities attract these creative people who are somewhat avant-garde or a little bit different.”
But whereas those who are mobile and relatively well resourced can maintain a strong, “unbounded” community, people who are unresourced financially or in some way disabled, he agrees, can get lost.
“Buildings on their own won’t make a difference. It’s about services, skill-building, connecting people who want to interact, who have something in common. Are we thinking about it enough? Probably not. We live in a very market-oriented society where people are supposed to make their own way, but there is a real possibility in using things that people enjoy doing as a vehicle for bringing them together.
“We can’t go back to living in villages, but can we recreate something that works along those lines? We can in the context of urban design, social policy, economic policy and housing policy.”
Throughout New Zealand, city plans mention liveable, walkable, accessible, community-driven cities and neighbourhoods. Auckland Council’s newly developed 30-year strategy includes an explicit goal to increase the proportion of residents who feel a sense of community in their local neighbourhood from 61% in 2010 to 90% by 2040 – and to make Auckland the world’s most liveable city on the way.
To do that, however, is to address the mistakes of the past. Over the past 50 years, says the council’s inaugural design champion, Ludo Campbell-Reid, planning and governance systems have failed their communities – more often, planning is done to rather than with the community.
“The construction of our cities has tended to be undertaken in professional or organisational silos – transport departments do the roads, planning departments do the zoning, landscape departments … on it goes. Yet citizens do not experience cities in this simplistic, vertical way. Cities are much more organic, much more chaotic, because they are all about people.”
Campbell-Reid suggests having a Minister for Cities, as in the UK, to bring together key urban strategies around education, health, transport and planning to develop viable long-term solutions. Also, he says, city administrations can work with the private sector and community to improve the urban environment, the place where “the theatre of public life plays out”.
HERE COMES THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Around the world, high fences and the primacy of the car are being replaced by a focus on the neighbourhood and the return of the high street.
“Big-box retail took away all that life of local town centre and internalised that in large boxes – to get there you had to drive,” says Campbell-Reid. “Now in the US, 200-300 malls are being torn down. They are not viable any more – people want to go back to a home-town centre and shops outside. The challenge now is how to create those connected, vibrant, functional, high-performing neighbourhoods, and that starts with great planning.”
Auckland Council’s new chief of strategy, Jim Quinn, points to Hobsonville, a public-private, high-density greenfield development on the former home of the RNZAF airfield. Even before houses were built, it boasted a cafe, school and farmers’ market. Now, new homeowners have access to cycleways, walkways, a car-share project and a ferry connection to the city – all that community stuff, says Quinn, “which brings the community out of the door and brings us together, that stops the isolation”.
But Hobsonville has government backing, says Jake Hughes, co-director of Hughes Developments, which is behind a number of new subdivisions around Christchurch. “So they had the luxury of being able to do some of these works upfront. Most developers commercially can’t do that. You need sales first before you can carry on with things like commercial centres and community facilities.”
In and around Christchurch’s urban fringe and outlying greenfields regions new subdivisions are proliferating in a frantic bid to meet the demands of a growing population and the loss of some 11,000 houses in the earthquakes.
A drive through these new developments reveals a uniform streetscape of treed walkways and cycle paths, parks, “lifestyle” etched into every manicured front lawn. Glossy brochures promise fibre-optic connections, reticulated gas and stand-alone homes in a “safe and secure” environment.
Some, such as Hughes Developments’ Faringdon and Ngai Tahu’s Wigram Skies, will include a commercial centre, but of Oldenburg’s third places – a corner shop, a community hall, in some cases even a bus stop – there is no sign.
Community-built facilities are a nice thought, Hughes agrees, but there are costs associated with that. “And what we gauge from our buyers is they are not willing to spend an extra $5000-10,000 so they can have a community hall. It is not just the initial cost but the ongoing costs of maintaining it and who picks up the tab for that? You’d have to have some sort of residents’ association and sinking fund. We are all about building communities – a Northwood development has an over-sixties precinct with bowling green and club house – and if the council was offering to maintain something, we would look into it.”
Christchurch public health specialist Lucy D’Aeth says we like “our children to be savvy enough to create a network of people who love and support and challenge them so they can live a good life”, and the way a city is built can encourage that. “If there are affordable places to gather, then you have a better city. When we build environments where it is hard to bump into your neighbour, everyone suffers. You might be safe but you are isolated. So we need those neutral public places that make it easy to connect, where those spontaneous conversations are safe to have.”
THE BEST OF BOTH
In her book, Pinker relates the story of Californian psychologist Lewis Terman, who in 1921 started tracking 1528 exceptionally bright Californian 11-year-olds; he and subsequent researchers followed them until their death. After studying the life stories of the 1528, University of California psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin summarised some of the findings as overturning five old wives’ tales:
• Worrying is bad for your health. Myth!
• Thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to a long life. Myth!
• Take it easy and don’t work so hard and you will stay healthier. Myth!
• Retire as soon as you can and play more golf to stay healthy and live longer. Myth!
• The good die early and the bad die late. Myth!
Pinker says what the two psychologists found did promote health and longevity is “conscientiousness and hard work, combined with a large, active network of family, friends and community ties – people whom you help and people who help you … worrying and hard work won’t kill you. But doing it alone just might.”
Another investigation she mentions is one that looked at 148 relationships and mortality studies of 309,000 people over seven and a half years. Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that the people who led more solitary lives had twice the risk of dying within the next seven years than those who were well connected within their community.
As Pinker says, “What was important was being part of a community in more ways than one – not just by being happily married, not only by belonging to clubs and groups, but by being involved in several of these activities and relationships at the same time.” Support groups, hired help or pets did not count as contact that would prolong a life, she says. Instead it had to come from “interacting with people you really know in ‘naturally occurring’ social relationships”.
But in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the author, US lawyer Susan Cain, questions our fixation with gregarious extroversion. It is time, she argues, to appreciate the importance of deep thought and solo reflection. British author and professor of psychiatry Anthony Storr similarly promoted the importance of solitude for well-being and creativity.
“And I am not saying you shouldn’t have it,” says Pinker. “That would be like promoting the idea you should eat green vegetables and people saying, ‘Does that mean I shouldn’t have milk?’ You can have both. But social contact is a basic feature of your diet. People can add other things – telephone, texting, Skype, etc – as long as you have that.”
She says researching the book has changed her previously largely insular lifestyle. “Writers have to live quite solitary lives, but writing this book changed me. It made me realise it’s not okay to spend so much time by myself.”
She has since joined a morning swim team, meeting a group of pool colleagues who may not be her closest friends but who will check in if she misses a few days. “On days I don’t swim, if I don’t get away from my office by 2.30, I go to the library or something. Even introverts need social contact. It is a myth that they don’t.”
THE VILLAGE EFFECT: WHY FACE-TO-FACE CONTACT MATTERS, by Susan Pinker (Atlantic Books, $36.99).
First build your village
“It takes a village to raise a child,” goes the African proverb. But it takes a community to build a village. According to Susan Pinker’s Village Effect, we’re lonelier and more unhappy on average than we were before we had the public internet and its emphasis on virtual connections. There’s no going back, she says, but there are six things we can do to help create the village effect:
• Live in a community where you know and talk to your neighbours.
• Build real human contact into your work day. Save email for logistics. Use the phone or face time for more nuanced interaction.
• Create a village of diverse relationships. Build in social contact with members of this village the way you work in meals and exercise.
• Adjust the ratio of your face-to-face contact to communication via screens according to your temperament, just as you adjust how much and what you eat according to your appetite.
• Make parent, teacher and peer interaction the priority for preschoolers and young children. Combine live teaching with online tools for older children and teens.
• As more of our interactions migrate to digital platforms, face-to-face contact in education, medicine and child care has become a luxury commodity, but as a fundamental human need, it should remain accessible to all.
Everybody needs good neighbours
An online bush telegraph is fostering community spirit around the country.
Last year, entrepreneurs Casey Eden and Shane Bradley launched the Neighbourly website and app, an online bush telegraph aimed at fostering community spirit through a local and secure listing service for events, activities and local businesses.
“Face-to-face connection is really important, but how does that happen naturally?” says Eden. “Because we are busier, the natural interactions we had are just not happening as much as they did 15-20 years ago. In Nelson where I grew up, I knew all my neighbours and that was a big part of my life – my concern is when 23-year-olds today become 35, they won’t have experienced that neighbourhood.”
Connections per se are not hard – we keep in touch with friends and colleagues overseas and it’s easy to find out what’s going on in London, New York, Paris. “It is only when you realise you know 2000 people around the world and no one down your street that you know something’s wrong. It would be weird to sit next to someone at work and not know their name – why should we do that in our home space?
“Like it or lump it, with a neighbourhood you share something in common, just the fact you live close. The issues may not always be serious, but in a time of need or emergency or some council issue, these are the people looking out for your back. So we wanted to create that face-to-face interaction, but we knew it wasn’t going to happen without a bit of forcing.”
As a result of that forcing, some 130,000 New Zealanders have signed up to Neighbourly. “I have connections all over the world, but I used to know no one in my street. Now we get together with neighbours, we have drinks, we use people locally for services. Just walking up the road and being able to wave at some people – I love that.”
It shouldn’t take a disaster to bring communities closer together.
In times of disaster, Susan Pinker’s “village effect” can be life-saving. Pinker recalls Montreal’s massive ice storm of 1998. As power cuts dragged on for days, then weeks, people shared food, cooked for each other, looked out for elderly neighbours.
“All these social bonds suddenly surfaced. Even though they didn’t have some of the creature comforts they were used to, people had that camaraderie.”
Post-disaster, she says, people talk about building back stronger. “Which is great, but we should also think about how we make our communities stronger to withstand these kinds of stresses, because the messages are very clear: the people who survive are the ones who have someone to check up on them. Those who don’t have these social bonds often don’t survive them.”
After the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, Christchurch’s material and metaphorical fences came down. Neighbours checked on neighbours, passed on information, shared food, water and living-room floors.
“Governments say when disaster hits, society breaks down and anarchy rules,” says Canterbury District Health Board public health specialist Lucy D’Aeth. “This is not what happens. After a disaster there is an outpouring of humanity. In Canterbury after the quakes, the suicide rate dropped to zero for three months, because suddenly it was entirely socially appropriate to talk to complete strangers and give them a hug. Help-seeking was absolutely required. We were all in the same boat.”
Those communities that have bounced back, she says, have been found to be those with strong social capital before the earthquakes – more local agencies, more groups, more “bumping in places”.
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