Community is at the heart of healthy and happy lives

I wondered what kind of life you'd have to have led to pack out a church at 77 years of age. How full your life would need to draw such a crowd, asks Joyce Fegan

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the longest-running study on happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, begun in 1918, has revealed.

I went to a funeral this week. You, more than likely, do not know the man, but you will, hopefully, know a man just like him.

This man was 77. He had three children, and a beloved wife, whom he had been married to for more than 50 years.

The church was packed, the kind of packed you usually only see at children’s funerals or at the funerals of tragedies, like when a coastguard volunteer dies in the line of duty. The kind of packed, where the term ‘standing room only’ is an inadequate expression.

The night before the funeral, I met a Scottish man. He told me about the many traditions the Scots have at New Year’s. One such tradition is the ‘first footing’. This man, maybe in his late 30s, said neighbours on his street used to come out after the bells of midnight and call door-to-door with lumps of coal or a glass of whiskey. He said no one does it on his road any more.

“People seem to keep to themselves nowadays, our generation at least,” he said.

The next day, at the funeral, I wondered what kind of life you’d have to have led to pack out a church at 77 years of age. How full your life would need to be to draw such a crowd?

This man, whose name was Liam, was inordinately kind. But, not the kind of kind that is saccharinely sweet, and hard to buy. He was witty, but not the kind of witty where you had to shrink in his company so he could hold court. His kindness and wit were melded with this gentleness that made everyone feel automatically comfortable in his company.

However, to say it was personality alone that made for a packed church, would be sloppy maths. There is more to the equation.

At his funeral, a grandson read ‘A Time for Everything’. There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”, goes the reading. This man, knew how to laugh, and how to dance. And when it was time to do both, he did so wholeheartedly. We don’t all live like that.

At Easter, he made elaborate egg hunts for his grandchildren, with almost unsolvable clues, that would keep them entertained for hours. His capacity for, and dedication to joy, and his ability to extract it from as many places as possible, also paved the way for a packed church.

But his modus vivendi and temperament aside, is was one thing above all, that left no standing room at his funeral. And it is the exact opposite of what’s at play in the loss of Scotland’s ‘first footing’.

Liam was a community and a club man. He loved golf and sailing, and he made lifelong friends doing both. The friendships, perhaps, the real reason he minded both hobbies so well. In a WhatsApp group after his death notice was shared, the common response was “a loyal friend”.

There is a way to live well, and this man knew the formula by heart and enacted it daily.

As schools return and the world starts back up after the New Year, resolutions abound, resolutions aimed at improving one’s life.

But, there is one thing that has been scientifically proven to cause happiness and health — embracing community.

The longest-running study on happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, started in 1938. Scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores, hoping the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.

Eighty years later, they looked at the data.

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. The ties of friendship are what protect people from life’s inevitable discontents. It was relationships that helped to delay mental and physical decline. And it was relationships that were the best predictors for long and happy lives, as opposed to social class, IQ, and even genes.

“Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

You can find community anywhere. You can find it in your workplace, the gang of you that go for a stroll on your lunch break. You can find it on your cul de sac. You can find it in your GAA club, or at your child’s Saturday morning practice. Or you can find it in your local Tidy Towns group.

While 2018, was a testing year for some with a challenging political climate and a bleak news agenda, there is nothing to suggest that 2019, will be a walk in the park.

You can do one of two things. One option is to do what Erik Hagerman did. Erik is the “man who knew too little”. After Donald Trump’s election on November 8, 2018, he gave up the news. After a year of living like this, he said: “I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt.” This, after a lifetime of tracking the news, and never doing “anything with it”.

The second thing you can do is do something. If you can’t avoid the news, nor have the inclination to do so, and you do not want to spend another year in a state of anxious despair, you can do something.

Your New Year’s resolution could be to kill several birds with this one sweeping stone.

Tackle loneliness and isolation, powerlessness and political despair with action, do something in your community. Volunteer to plant flowerbeds. Join St Vincent de Paul. If you live near the sea, look up your local beach cleaning group. Try out Toastmasters.

Instead of slaving away on a treadmill five nights a week for the sake of a few pounds, take up indoor soccer or ballroom dancing.

Make way for a good year. Your 77-year-old self will thank you for it.

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