The Key to Healthy & Happy Lives? The Answer Might Surprise You.


Renoir’s “Boating Party.” I wonder if Renoir knew that being part of a caring community is really good for your health.

In his eye-opening book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), Malcolm Gladwell tells a cross between a fairy tale and a detective story about a town whose inhabitants enjoyed good health.  A curious and diligent doctor figured out that it had little to do with the food they ate, or the exercise they did, or the doctors they went to.  It had everything to do with how they treated each other.

It sounds like one of the storybooks we used to read to Natalie that would begin something like this:  In a town called Roseto, Pennsylvania the people stayed healthy. They lived long, happy lives.  What was their secret?

In the 1950’s, a doctor named Stewart Wolf, who was interested in stomachs and digestion, taught at the University of Oklahoma Medical School.  He had learned that people who lived in Roseto didn’t seem to suffer from heart disease, which at the time was the leading cause of death in men under the age of 65.  He was curious to learn what it was about the people in Roseto that made them immune to the disease. With the help of John Bruhn, a sociologist friend, they started collecting data and analyzing doctors’ records of the Rosetans.

What they discovered was amazing!  They learned that the community’s good health had nothing to do with the location of Roseto, or genetics,  or even diet or exercise. It had to do with how the Rosetans interacted with each other.  They noticed “how the Rosetans visited one another or cooked for one another in their backyards.” They learned how extended families took care of not just each other but everyone in the community.  Notably, Dr. Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn noticed that fair and equal treatment was important in the community, “which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”

In the 1950’s many believed that living a long life depended a lot on having good genes, i.e. if your grandparents and parents lived long, healthy lives, chances were good you would too. But what Dr. Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn figured out was this:  “the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.”

A recent story about Ikaria (a Greek Island) in The New York Times, “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” confirms and reminds us that there is much truth in the tale of the Rosetans.   Intriguingly, the story about the Ikarians also includes fascinating details about lifestyle that I found both reassuring (my delicious morning and afternoon cup of black coffee are probably very good for me!) and illuminating (I will increase my consumption of honey and beans, and the frequency of naps in my life). You can read the article by going to the link below:



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