The Pull to Wholeness:
The Conncetion Between Health & Belonging
Natural Weight Loss
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| The architect Howard
Roark, played by a flinty Gary Cooper in the movie version of Ayn
Rand's book The Fountainhead, is one of our greatest modern heroes-the
very model of the resolute lone wolf outsider. He dynamites his housing
project rather than allow his vision to be bastardized by "the
second-handers." At his courtroom trial, armed only with his
uncompromising words, he defends himself against charges of vandalism
by delivering a paean to the individual.
At the end of The Fountainhead, Roark triumphs, inexplicably managing to avoid a prison sentence despite having blown up a city block. He gets to build his building his way-and he gets the girl. In the final scene he stands astride a platform on the top of his skyscraper, his silhouette towering above the New York skyline, a colussus, the epitome of Nietzche's Ubermenshe-and the perfect candidate for a heart attack.
Although Rand championed the supremacy of the individual through Roark, who served as the mouthpiece for her Objectivist philosophy, the libertarian ideal-living for the self above all else-is in fact a highly toxic state of being. The idea that any of us can live life successfully with fist raised, contra mundi, is a fiction. Our biology is the product of fusing with the world around us. The bond we make with the world is automatic and intrinsic to us. We are who we are only because of our connection with everything outside of ourselves. But a similar bond governs our social behavior. We also create a super organism in our relationships. Whenever we interact with another person or group of people we display a deep automatic impulse to connect with them, and we make constant demonstration of this impulse in our actions, emotions, behaviors, and opinions. To satisfy our deepest need, which is to merge with others, we constantly seek synchrony.
Most of us are taught that the single most important impulse we have is to survive at all costs. Yet as the latest science demonstrates, our urge for relationship is more fundamental still. Rather than a will to power, the essential impulse of all life is a will to connect. Our natural instinct is to merge with the other, to move away from the atomization of our individuality to the holism of the group. Deep connection rather than competition is the quality most essential to human nature; we were never meant to live a life of isolation and self-serving survival. Human beings need partnership just to survive; we experience the greatest stress and the most serious illness when we are isolated from others and from a sense of connection. In 1955 Len Syme, a young sociology fellow at Yale, made what was then considered a naive and reckless decision, something virtually unheard of in either sociology or medicine: to study the sociology of health. Syme suspected that social factors had a bearing on certain diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, which at the time were believed to be primarily due to an individual's lifestyle, with a dietary or environmental genesis. His thesis advisors urged him to reconsider; there was no literature on the subject in either sociology or medicine, and likely never to be any.
Nevertheless, with a stubborn doggedness and quiet determination to buck authority, Syme held his ground, eventually becoming the first sociologist to land a job in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, an appointment considered so foreign that his superiors had no idea what title to offer him. After a first and largely fruitless attempt to tease out why rates of cardiovascular disease varied in numerous states, Syme abandoned the statistical tools he'd learned in graduate school and started to carry out what is disparagingly called in science a "fishing expedition," combing through the data to find a hypothesis-in this instance, looking for any social conditions that might vary between those who'd had a heart attack and those who didn't. What Syme found was that the "culturally mobile" as he began to call them-those who had moved geographically from one societal culture to something quite different, particularly from farms to white-collar city jobs-went on to develop heart disease. This connection prevailed even when he eliminated other factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and all the other supposed major risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Social mobility-moving outside your own cluster and no longer belonging-made you ill.
Syme presented his findings to a roomful of the world's most eminent cardiovascular epidemologists, who rejected them out of hand. After a stint at the National Institutes of Health, where he established the first epidemiological review group to fund this type of research, Syme landed a professorship of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at Berkeley, the first sociologist to hold such a position. There he teamed up with Reuell Stallones, another of Berkeley's professors, to test his migration hypothesis with the perfect population: the Japanese who had migrated to Hawaii and California. As a people, the Japanese fascinate students of epidemiology because they are such an apparent paradox: they have the lowest heart disease in the world, despite the fact that smoking, one of the strongest risk factors, is virtually universal among men. Japan's longevity statistics confound all our expectations about what is required to live a long and healthy life. The country produces the world's largest number of centenarians; currently a reported 40,000 people have reached their hundredth birthday, many of them smokers.
Stallones was interested in whether the Japanese had low rates of heart disease in their home country because of their low-fat diet, and whether the rate went up when they adopted a typical burger-and-fries American diet. But Syme was fascinated by the social factor: whether moving countries was so destabilizing that it caused heart disease.
The results confounded both their expectations. The rate of heart disease among Japanese men immigrating to California was five times greater than the rate among those who stayed in Japan, and the rate among those who immigrated to Hawaii was midway between the two. This signaled that immigration didn't automatically cause heart disease. Yet the results appeared to be completely independent of any of the usual supposed risk factors of heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure, diet, or cholesterol count; in fact the Japanese population studied contained the highest number of smokers and the lowest levels of heart disease.
Amazingly their results also appeared independent of any dietary changes. Whatever the Japanese ate-whether tofu and sushi or a Big Mac-had no bearing on their propensity to heart disease. The most traditional group of Japanese Americans had a heart attack rate as low as their fellow Japanese back home, while those who had adopted the Western go-ahead lifestyle increased their heart-attack incidence by three to five times. These differences could not be accounted for by any of the usual risk factors, such as diet. Those with social networks and social support were protected against heart disease regardless of whether they smoked or suffered from high blood pressure.
Symes was so intrigued by these results that he decided to travel to Japan in search of this missing X-factor of impregnable health. He interviewed scores of Japanese to find the single feature that most distinguised the social fabric of America from that of Japan. And what he found was that Americans were lonely. Anyone could see that. The Japanese, particularly in southern Japan, maintain tight-knit social groups that are mutually supportive, even in business. Until Japan's severe economic recession in the 1990s, joining a firm as an employee was not unlike marrying into a family-a relationship for life.
Syme returned to California and enlisted another graduate student of his, Lisa Berkman, to examine the importance of social networks and social support as protection against heart disease. Berman assembled the health statistics of most of the inhabitants in Alameda County by laboriously combing through 9 years worth of Human Population Laboratory statistics. Eventually she was able to show that those who felt lonely and socially isolated were two to three times more likely to die from heart disease and other causes than those who felt connected to others. These results were independent of risk factors such as high cholesterol level, high blood pressure, smoking, and family history.
Berkman was fascinated to learn that our biological responses to stress, the "fight-or-flight" mechanisms of our autonomic nervous and endocrine systems, are subdued when a companion is present, or we believe that support will be present. Even connection with a pet is protective.
As the most forward-thinking medical minds realize, the genesis of most disease is stress-not the stress of transient life events, such as the state of our finances or relationships, but the stress generated by our global response to life, how we perceive our place in the world. All the research suggests that our need to belong is so intrinsic that the quality of our social bond is fundamental to our survival. An enormous body of research reveals that the root of stress and ultimately illness is a sense of isolation, and most toxic of all appears to be our current tendency to pit ourselves against each other.
Excerpted with permission from The Bond ©2011 by Lynne McTaggart published by Free Press, New York, NY. Available in stores or visit www.simonandschuster.com
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