"The Island Where People Forget to Die" and Social Ecosystems

October 9, 2016

A vibrant social ecosystem is as essential as the Mediterranean Diet to health and longevity.

You might have seen this article The Island Where People Forget to Die a few years ago. I recently re-read this exploration of "blue zones" where people habitually live long, productive lives, and read a companion piece on the "blue zone" author's discoveries about food and diet: My Dinner With Longevity Expert Dan Buettner.

What really struck me in this re-reading was the centrality of purposeful work and a robust social ecosystem in the lives of the productive/active elderly.

This is in stark contrast to the conventional narrative of our healthcare system, which focuses on diet and exercise as the sole inputs that affect longevity.

This mechanical mindset leads us to conclude that doing time on a treadmill and being hyper-vigilant about sticking to a strict dietary regime are the keys not just to health but to longevity.

But if we look a bit more deeply at life on Okinawa and the Greek island of Ikaria, we find that spending time with friends over a glass of wine and purposeful work in gardens and vineyards are more central to daily life than time spent alone on exercise machines or obsessively following diets.

The idea that the social ecosystem is as important (or even more important) than the easy-to-quantify-and-measure mechanics of exercise and diet. The idea that our social ecosystem is more important than the inputs of exercise and diet simply doesn't compute in our system's worldview for a basic reason:

our system only recognizes what can be measured and quantified. Since social reciprocity, bonds, obligations, etc. cannot be easily quantified, they simply don't exist in our medical worldview.

These factors are at best incidentals, mentioned as asides. Yet if the "blue zone" studies have any merit at all, it's clear that the social ecosystem is as essential as the Mediterranean Diet to health and longevity.

I also see purposeful work as being absolutely central to the active elderly lifestyle, and this is work is integral to the social ecosystem: people share the produce they grow, the wine made from their vineyards, etc.

In contrast, our system views work as something to be avoided if you're wealthy enough, and something to be jettisoned without regrets upon official retirement.

Anecdotally, men who retire to lives of socially isolated aimlessness tend to die in their first year of retirement. This collapse of health makes perfect sense if we understand the core framework of health is not time spent on an exercise machine and a restricted diet, but purposeful, gentle work that is recognized and valued by a social ecosystem of friends with whom the benefits of work can be shared and enjoyed.

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 49. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to subscribers and patrons ($5/month or $50/annually).

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