What makes people happy? Geoffrey Miller, a psychologist who specializes in happiness research, found that “a person’s age, sex, race, income, geographic location, nationalist, and education level have only trivial correlations with happiness, typically explaining 2% of the variance. An important exception is that hungry, diseased, oppressed people in developing nations tend to be slightly less happy – but once they reach a certain minimum standard calorie intake and physical security, further increases in material affluence do not increase their happiness very much.” In fact, happiness reaches a plateau at an average national income between $10,000 and $20,000 per year, even in the affluent US.

Phoebe-celebrating-agape-largerWhat does make a difference in happiness? “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world,” writes Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.” In other words, community.

“Even now, rates of depression differ markedly between cultures, probably by as much as 12-fold, and such differences in rates of depression appear to be linked to the degree of stability and interconnectedness within a culture. Even being uprooted from your own culture, provided you take with you the way of thinking and being that characterizes the more integrated social culture from which you come, is not as disruptive to happiness and well-being as becoming part of a relatively fragmented culture. For example, rates of psychological disturbance in Mexican immigrants to the USA start at a low level, but increase in proportion to the time spent in the US. The lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder in one large study was 18 per cent for Mexican immigrants with less than thirteen years in the US, 32 per cent for those with more than thirteen years, but only for those born in the US did it approximate, at 49 per cent, the national rate for the whole US.”

Community is good not only for mind, but also for the body. “‘Social connectedness’ predicts lower rates of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts. In fact the positive effects of social integration rival the detrimental effects of smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and physical inactivity. According to Putnam, ‘statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon general’s report on smoking.’ The protective effect of community is demonstrated by the interesting case of Roseto, a close-knit community of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, with largely traditional cultural ties – both the formal ones of churches and clubs, and the informal ones that form the fabric of traditional Italian daily life. This community attracted medical attention in the 1940s because of a mysterious anomaly: here was a rate of heart attack less than half the national average, despite having higher than average risk factors. After the relationship with social connectedness was discovered, it was predicted that once the mobile younger generation moved away and ‘began to reject the tight-knit Italian folkways, the heart attack rate would begin to rise.’ By the 1980s this prediction had come true.

These statistics and scientific studies are fascinating, but I imagine most of us already sense that some level of communal belonging is integral to the health of mind and body. To be healthy is to be whole – the words “heal”, “whole,” and “holy” all come from the same Indo-European root. We need each other as much or more than we need anything else. As Wendell Berry succinctly put in a well-known essay, “health is membership.” So if you’re feeling under the weather, it may be time to find a community.

[This is a lightly-edited extract from a book I recently read, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist (Yale UP, 2009), pp. 435-36. McGilchrist provides copious citations, so check the book if you’d like to follow up on some of his references.]