While many of us focus primarily on diet and exercise to achieve better health, science suggests that our well-being also is influenced by the company we keep. Researchers have found that certain health behaviors appear to be contagious and that our social networks — in person and online — can influence obesity, anxiety and overall happiness. A recent report found that a person’s exercise routine was strongly influenced by his or her social network.
I was reminded recently of the power of the crowd during a wellness cruise sponsored by Times Journeys. The event attracted a group of like-minded travelers who, despite experiencing various levels of adversity in their lives, including cancer, vision loss and the recent loss of a loved one, were remarkably optimistic and upbeat. The group ranged in age from 17 to 90. One inspiring man, in his 80s, had adopted a vegan lifestyle and a strict exercise routine to control his diabetes. Another new friend, a woman in her 50s who had survived lung cancer, cheered me on and kept me going during a particularly difficult workout.
After the trip, we all promised to keep in touch. Buoyed by the experience, I returned home with a renewed commitment not only to exercise and healthful living, but to simply step up my social life and spend more time hanging out with happy people.
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, has studied the health habits of people who live in so-called blue zones — regions of the world where people live far longer than the average. He noted that positive friendships are a common theme in the blue zones.
“Friends can exert a measurable and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that a diet never can,” Mr. Buettner said.
In Okinawa, Japan, a place where the average life expectancy for women is around 90, the oldest in the world, people form a kind of social network called a moai — a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support for a lifetime.
By Tara Parker-Pope