“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another” – Charles Dickens

In a recent survey of over 2,000 people, half of the participants said it was hard to prioritize their health due to being too busy and not having enough time, and also not having positive influences to inspire healthy choices. Not having support seemed to be the biggest hurdle for many, with the majority agreeing they’d be more successful in reaching their health goals if they had more support.

The challenges of work and life, especially during the pandemic, often disrupt our best intentions. Work (especially if stressful) can demand most of our time and energy, which reduces our motivation to exercise or eat well. Caring for family members, whether that’s our children, our aging parents or a sick spouse, can take priority over our own health. Lastly, social and environmental factors that encourage sedentary behavior and poor eating habits make living a healthy lifestyle difficult. All of these factors can affect our motivation, increasing our risk of depression and feelings of loneliness. Having positive relationships and support from family, friends or our community not only inspires healthy behavior, but those who are giving the support benefit as well.

“Moai” – A social support group of lifelong friends in Okinawa Japan

Humans are inherently social and tribal by nature. “We are heavily influenced by the groups with which we associate, for better or for worse.” Studies show that unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking, poor eating habits, and even loneliness are contagious! People who have more positive relationships and support tend to have better overall health and live longer. This is especially true in Okinawa Japan, a Blue Zone region which has more centenarians (people over 100) than almost anywhere else in the world. A good reason for this is related to a traditional cultural practice called Moai – a social support group that starts in childhood and extends throughout a person’s life. Longevity research has shown that close connection with a supportive spouse or partner, or with friends and relatives, or community involvement that’s associated with a club membership, or volunteerism, can lead to lasting health and happiness.

Community Health Connectors

Even before the pandemic, older adults in America were at increased risk for loneliness, because they are more likely to face factors that make them prone to social isolation. For instance, the death of a spouse or close friend, or being in poor health and not having family members or friends nearby to support you, increases isolation and feelings of loneliness. The pandemic only made matters worse. Community efforts to fight against loneliness during the pandemic took root in Frome, England, and their success has spread to other countries. The program seeks to improve emotional well-being through volunteer “health connectors,” who link people to community groups and services. These range from computer advice to cooking lessons, from connecting people to social groups for recreational activities (e.g. walking, hiking, biking, pickle ball, etc.) to peer support groups that help overcome life difficulties, such as AA or grief counseling.

However, it’s not just lonely people who benefit from more social support. Those who take an active interest in helping others or volunteer in their communities can experience a boost in their mental health as well. Studies have shown that people who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better. Why does helping others benefit our mental health? First, when we help others, we tend to experience what researchers call a “helper’s high”. After helping someone, your brain releases endorphins which can reduce pain and boost your mood. Second, helping others is likely to help our sense of social connection. For older adults, volunteering can be a way to feel useful and stay connected to others after retirement.

The late American diplomat and activist, Sargent Shriver, declared during a commencement speech at Yale in May 1994, “Break your mirrors! Shatter the glass! In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other.” Shriver was trying to inspire the Yale graduates to direct their energy and ambition not towards themselves, but to serving others. In this day and digital age it would be our smartphones he would want us to shatter. Yet, I’m not sure if Shriver realized the irony in his speech, in that when we serve others, we also serve ourselves. In other words, when we help others overcome their challenges, especially when their challenges and ambitions are similar to ours, we are actually helping ourselves find meaning and purpose in our lives.