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I got you on the “how to live forever” part, didn’t I? Okay, it depends on your interpretation of forever, but let’s just say “longer than you might otherwise expect,” especially when you consider your other life habits. But what does health and longevity have to do with the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania? You probably have a general idea of where I’m going with this, but pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of (red) wine anyway. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’ll find it a cool little piece of Italian-American history.

                                    

The Roseto Effectnce upon a time in America, as long ago as the 1950s, there was a physician named Benjamin Falcone who practiced in Pennsylvania near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth. During the 17 years he had been treating patients in the vicinity, Dr. Falcone noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns, and across the United States in general, were increasing steadily.

Could it have something to do with their relative seclusion? The inhabitants of Roseto had emigrated almost en masse from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore, located in the province of Foggia. Hoping to escape poverty in their homeland, about 1,200 inhabitants of Roseto Valfortore had been issued passports bound for America by 1894. After they arrived, existing cultural pressures and social restrictions prevented them from scattering and melting into the local populations, so they eventually built their own community on a rather confined hillside, essentially separated from nearby English, Welsh or German immigrants. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted and even admired by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbor’s keeper.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. Unfortunately, the study didn’t follow up on mental health effects, but there is no shortage of more recent research linking mental health and well-being to social support—or indeed linking physical health to mental health.

Can materialistic and individualistic values really do so much harm to the health of a community? Isn’t independence one of the greatest gifts we can give our children?

It’s a valid question. As parents we certainly want our children to grow up knowing how to dress themselves, regulate themselves and exercise a great deal of the trait that we call “independence.” But as you consider independence in terms of community, also consider that the human brain is not only itself a mass of connections that feed the health of mind and body, but the stability of these connections is maintained and supported by reliable interconnectivity with other human brains. And contrary to the fears of some, you can’t have “too many” connections. You may not treasure them all equally, but all serve a purpose and contribute to the larger safety net that is community.

That said, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Monty Python: “We’re all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!” But we are individuals who, because we are human, are pro-social beings. Whether we like it or not, this makes us interdependent, and that’s not so bad—in fact, it’s actually the way of all living things.

Of course, if you prefer, you can try to do “forever” on your own . . . but the odds aren’t going to be stacked in your favor.

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Humans Are Happier when They Do the Right Thing; It Also Helps Them Overcome Difficulties

June 12, 2013—Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Heart Disease Risk Linked with Spouses’ Social Support

February 6, 2014—Matters of the heart can influence actual heart health, according to new research. A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive—and how you support your spouse—can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

People Who Are Socially Isolated Experience More Pain after Hip Replacement

October 27, 2013—Could being socially isolated affect how well you do and the amount of pain you experience after surgery? Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) set out to test this hypothesis. They found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain following total hip replacement surgery two or more years after the procedure.

People Mean Most for our Collective Happiness

October 7, 2013—Swedish soccer star Zlatan is associated with happiness, but not iPhones. A new study at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Lund Universitysuggests that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships, and less about things.

PeopleWho Needs Them?
 Nov 2, 2011 … As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way.

The Big DisconnectWhen I first undertook to review Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair’s new book, I imagined it would be the typical rant against modern technology. Titled The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, it certainly could have taken the easy route to success—which often seems to involve blaming all of society’s ills on the latest popular gadget, as though the human experience would be positively overflowing with love and sweetness and light if only we lived in a more innocent age (assuming there has ever been one). Of course, new technologies do tend to present new challenges, so Steiner-Adair could have been justified in sounding an alarmist note to ensure book sales, as social scaremongers have been known to do since even before the invention of the telephone. She could have taken such an approach. But she didn’t.

On the other hand, she didn’t ignore the challenges either. As I was pleasantly surprised to discover, The Big Disconnect  offers a fair and balanced assessment of our tech-infused culture, outlining the challenges—as well as pointing out the benefits—of digital connection, while also offering parents strategies for navigating digital dilemmas.

“A family is an ecosystem,” writes Steiner-Adair with co-author Teresa H. Barker. But even as we want this ecosystem to thrive, she says, we also realize that social media, texting, screen games, and other digital pulls can pose a risk to family well-being. “The good news,” she writes, ” is that we have everything we need to create sustainable families—loving, thriving human ecosystems. . . . It is never to late to turn a nurturing eye to family and in the process to update attitudes or patterns that aren’t working as you’d like.”

How does one go about doing this? In practical terms that include concrete, easily-implemented techniques, Steiner-Adair shows us how we can develop seven important qualities that are shared by the most resilient, sustainable families she encounters in her work as a psychologist and Harvard instructor. Essentially, she says, sustainable families:

1.  recognize the challenges posed by the pervasive presence of tech and develop a family philosophy toward its use. “The family has its own ways—tech and nontech—of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” Steiner-Adair writes.

2.  encourage play, and play together.

3.  nourish meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations, and optimism.

4.  understand the uniqueness of each person, encourage independence and individual interests, and foster their independence in the context of family.

5.  have built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, transparency. Rather than simply demanding trust, they give their children good reason to trust.

6.  have values, wisdom, a link to past and future, and some common language that they share with family and friends.

7.  provide experiences offline in which children can cultivate an inner life, solitude, and connection to nature.

The real-life examples Steiner-Adair offers as support are convincing. They vividly illustrate the costs of ignoring these seven principles; and expose just how easily kids can conflate online illusions with real life scripts when their time spent in cyberspace outdistances time spent with those who love, guide and ground them in their physical space.

Clueless about how to make it clear to your kids that you love them and want to be there for them as they navigate choppy digital waters? Steiner-Adair addresses that too. After interviewing more than a thousand children about what makes a parent approachable, she brings it all back down to the issue of trust. Just as parents hope to trust their children, children crave to trust their parents.

Even as children’s lives become more complex, writes Steiner-Adair, “They continue, much as they did from birth, to watch us closely for cues that tell them whether we are approachable. They come to understand how each parent will react. . . . They develop a keen sense about which parent to approach with what kind of situation. Who goes ballistic over a B on a test? Who takes mistakes in stride? They learn when it’s okay to interrupt a parent at work and for what reason. And they know—or believe they know—when their parents are the last people in the world to approach. This is how we earn our reputation with them as reliable and trustworthy—or not.” No one is suggesting this is a new dynamic. But there’s no question that, like so many other social dynamics, it is heightened by our digital connectivity.

These are not straightforward times. As parents, we are still finding our footing in a world that has changed dramatically since we were children. To Steiner-Adair, this means that we need to be aware that the answers to our dilemmas are nuanced: meaning that there are complexities to them. We need to “resist facile, fast-twitch answers,” she says, and grasp the understanding that “the big questions about how we use media and tech are not simple.”

This does not mean we need to abandon what she calls “old truths.” Quite the contrary. Dealing with nuance does not mean abandoning truth: and the most basic truth, when it comes to children, is that they need our attention. “Children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family,” Steiner-Adair concludes. And while we haven’t yet succeeded in applying this kind of relationship on a global scale (as she argues we desperately need to do) nevertheless, “we can deepen connections, cultivate closeness, and push pause more often to savor the gift of time and the primacy of family.”

The research citations in this compelling book are extensive and impressive, but you don’t need to be an academic to connect with Steiner-Adair’s important message. Her common sense and positive tone offer parents a generous measure of confidence that, yes—it’s possible to foster secure family relationships even in our intensely digital age; as well as to set children on the path to successfully navigating their own relationships far into the future.

gratitude researchEveryone knows healthy relationships require effective communication, but are all communication strategies equal? Take Thumper’s well-worn advice for instance: “If you can’t say something nice don’t say nuthin’ at all.”

On the surface, the principle seems sound. But if this tactic hasn’t been working for you lately, you may find it comforting to know you’re not alone. With all due respect to Bambi’s flop-eared friend, several studies have piled up over the years suggesting that silence may not really be the best solution to communication problems.

In fact, say researchers, “avoidant” strategies (such as saying “nuthin’ at all”) actually reduce intimacy and erect barriers to resolving conflict: they are every bit as destructive to relationships as yelling and name-calling. That said, saying something nice still beats both alternativesespecially when “something nice” includes expressing gratitude.

Most of us would have no trouble understanding why expressing gratitude to our partner strengthens his or her investment in the relationship, but in 2010, researcher Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues found that it also increases the strength of our own sense of personal investment in the relationship. The simple exercise of finding as few as five things to express gratitude about each week may be the simplest and most effective first step toward bringing couples and families closer together.

What if you can find nothing to be grateful for? Is that the time to invoke the cliché and “say nothing at all?” Not so, say researchers. We need to find constructive ways to talk about the issues that bother us. Neglecting positive strategies could potentially be as detrimental to relationship quality as falling into destructive strategies, which include the use of inflammatory or emotional language, accusations, yelling or criticism.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude seems to be anti-gratitude, says Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has focused on gratitude since 1998. His 2007 book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier explored the benefits and societal barriers to making the most of this important emotion.

“Outside of happiness, gratitude’s benefits are rarely discussed these days,” he wrote. “Indeed, in contemporary American society, we’ve come to overlook, dismiss or even disparage the significance of gratitude as a virtue.” As a result, he says, “We have become entitled, resentful, ungrateful and forgetful.”

Nevertheless, the research on gratitude continues to underscore its importance. Not only are grateful couples happier in their relationships, Berkeley researchers reiterated on February 5th, but levels of gratitude felt by partners can even predict who will break up and who will still be together months down the road.

Worse, the literature suggests that people who have a hard time finding reasons for gratitude may also find themselves with impaired psychological as well as physical health.  Among its physical health benefits, gratitude strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure, says Emmons. It supports mental health by blocking negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret. There’s even evidence, he writes, that “gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.”

If your relationship is already suffering from lack of gratitude, please do yourself a huge favor and read “Love, Honor, and Thank” by researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Threthewey. And I promise you won’t regret following that up with “Why Gratitude is Good,” by Emmons himself.

Gratitude, like Thumper’s greens, is a “special treat,” fortifying our relationships with vital nutrients. A daily dose of thankfulness may not make for “long ears and great big feet,” but it protects us from attitudes that poison our communication and threaten our personal well-being. Fortunately, no matter how long we have been suffering from a gratitude deficiency, it’s never too late to add it to our family’s daily diet.

stress effectsIt will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with psychology research that much of who we are and what we do goes back to the quality of our family relationships. Positive, supportive family relationships contribute to our well-being in countless ways—while negative, abusive ones can be deadly.

Of course, most of us don’t tend to analyze what we do from the viewpoint of our own family history—we just want to give our children the best possible environment for their physical and emotional development because we love them. They’re an extension of us, we’re invested in their future. It just happens to be a bonus for society that when we focus on meeting the needs of our children, the wider community and future generations reap benefits too.

But it isn’t always easy  to carve out the necessary quality family time in our busy Western society. Increasingly, families need two wage-earners just supply the “basics.” School, extracurricular activities and other obligations also encroach on down time. How do these daily stressors affect familes? This was the question explored by Rena Repetti and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a peer reviewed study published in the April 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“The family is popularly imagined as a stable haven, a place where individuals come together to recuperate from the ups and downs of the outside world,” wrote the researchers. “But the family has ups and downs of its own; it is a dynamic system, not impermeable to outside influences but porous and continually in flux. For example, parents’ job schedules and children’s homework shape family time, activities, and routines. Other effects of work and school on the family are less overt.”

Certainly, as the researchers explain, people often continue to react to a stressful event long after it has occurred and may find themselves nursing too many work wounds at home as a result. How does the fallout affect family relationships?

“We have found that, following more stressful days at work, spouses and parents adjust their social behavior at home in two ways.” write the UCLA researchers. “One common pattern is an overall reduction in social engagement and expression of emotion.” Mothers as well as fathers withdrew emotionally and disengaged socially from their children after stressful or exceptionally demanding work days. Spouses “were more distracted and less responsive” toward one another. Children also showed lingering reactions to school stress. Both elementary-school-age children and teens initiated more conflict with other family members after a day filled with academic problems or difficulties with peers.

“A second short-term response to job stress resembles the stereotypic image of an agitated employee kicking his dog after an argument with his boss,” says the report. This plays out as “an increase in irritability and displays of anger with both spouse and children.” Ripetti and her colleagues note that this second pattern is most likely to occur in people who have a history of psychological distress.

How harmful is all this take-home stress in the long run? It depends. If the short-term effects are allowed to build up over time, there may be more lasting effects. Especially within families with high levels of conflict, or where one or more family members have a history of depression and anxiety.

We do know from other studies that family support and parental engagement are crucial to the well-being of children, so if our coping style in reaction to stress at work involves withdrawing from our families at home, it can’t be good over the long haul. As difficult as it may be to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, resilience experts suggest that connecting, rather than withdrawing, is our best bet for handling stress. Rapetti’s research is fascinating and important in several respects: but perhaps the most important thing parents can take home from this study is a new awareness of what they may be bringing home to their children at the end of their work day.

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