National Geographic fellow and author Dan Buettner has studied the health habits of people who live in 'blue zones' around the world - regions where people live longer lives than the average. He noted that a common theme in these people's lives are positive friendships.
“Friends can exert a measurable and ongoing influence on your health behaviours in a way that a diet never can,” Buettner said.
The oldest average life expectancy in the world is in Okinawa, Japan - the women's average is about 90 years old. In this area, people form a social network called a 'moai' - a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support to one another for a lifetime.
“It’s a very powerful idea. Traditionally, their parents put them into moais when they are born, and they take a lifelong journey together," says Buettner.
The maoi benefits when things go well, and support each other in hard times. They also appear to influence one another's lifelong health behaviours.
Buettner has been working with federal and state officials in the US to create moais in two dozen cities:
“We’re finding that in some of these cities, you can just put people together who want to change health behaviours and organise them around walking or a plant-based potluck,” he says. “We nudge them into hanging out together for 10 weeks. We have created moais that are now several years old, and they are still exerting a healthy influence on members’ lives.”
The Blue Zone team tries to group people into moais based on geography, work and family schedules to begin with, then they ask a series of questions to find common interests.
“I argue that the most powerful thing you can do to add healthy years is to curate your immediate social network,” says Buettner, who advises people to focus on three to five real world friends rather than distant Facebook friends. “In general you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation,” he said. “You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”
The Blue Zone have created a quiz to help you assess the positive impact of your own social network - it asks questions about your friends health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. It's goal isn't to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life you might benefit from spending more time with.
So make sure you're surrounding yourself with positive, healthy people and it is likely to rub off on you!