By the Book: The Village Effect

January 2019

The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier
Susan Pinker

About the Author

Susan Pinker is a developmental psychologist, social science journalist, author, and lecturer. Her articles have appeared in the Atlantic, the Economist, the Guardian, New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Pinker’s first book, The Sexual Paradox, garnered high praise and the American Psychological Association’s most prestigious literary prize, the William James Book Award.

In a Nutshell

Pinker writes: “Our recent understanding of what drives health and happiness has centered on the concrete: food, earning power, exercise, drugs. We’ve discovered, for example, that cigarettes, salt, animal fat, and being fat shorten our lives, while antibiotics, physical activity, and the right diet prolong it. Now new findings tell us that our relationships — the people we know and care about — are just as critical to our survival.”

The Village Effect explores compelling research from the field of social neuroscience suggesting that the human brain is wired to crave, seek, in fact, need face-to-face contact with other people. It is about the positive, long-term impact on health of the in-person interactions we have with those in our inner relationship circle — mother to child, friend to friend, mentor to mentee, etc. — and even to some extent those looser social bonds we forge on our journey from the cradle to the grave.

Pinker draws a solid-line connection between regular face-to-face contact with family and close friends and longevity, saying such contact helps “by fortifying your immune system, calibrating your hormones, and rejigging how the genes that govern your behavior and resilience are expressed.”

The New York Times Magazine summed The Village Effect up in one sentence: “Good peers help make centenarians” (Pinker, 2014).

Keys for Camp

According to research, camps’ focus on and intentional steps toward being inclusive of campers of all backgrounds — races, genders, sexual orientations, mental and physical abilities — is essential. Inclusion is a collective survival strategy. Pinker writes, “Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived predators or privation for very long if they hadn’t belonged to an inclusive group.” Our brains have evolved to recognize this necessity. “Living in a community is so essential to survival that an early warning system evolved that rings biochemical alarm bells when we’re ostracized. We experience these warnings as acute anxiety, which — like other metabolic warnings such as extreme hunger, thirst, or pain — essentially communicates the following message: fix this or you’re finished.

Pinker also weighs in on the ever-raging societal and camp community debate about the pros and cons of the Internet and social media. She writes, “Some say we’re more connected now than ever — mostly due to the Internet — and some say we’re less connected — mostly due to the Internet. Both views are correct.”

Empirical evidence on the health effects of the digital revolution doesn’t necessarily align with social media supporters. “Despite our being increasingly tethered to the devices that connect us virtually, there has not been a corresponding uptick in well-being,” Pinker reports. “In fact, it’s the reverse. By and large we’re lonelier and unhappier than we were in the decades before the Internet age.”

Pinker is quick to point out that we’ve opened the high-tech version of Pandora’s box; there is no going back. “The digital revolution, like the automotive revolution that preceded it, has enhanced society in countless ways,” but, she suggests, “given the sobering impact of decreasing intimate contact on public health, among other things, it seems that it’s time for a slight course correction.” A conscious effort to promote socializing may be needed.

“A couple of millennia before Facebook, the [public] square was the one-stop gathering place for gossip, shopping, and spiritual guidance, a magnet for social interaction, public and private.” With much of these transactions taking place online today, camps have an even more important role to play than in past generations — to be the “public square” for childhood — to provide the human contact and intimate friend relationships that foster not only better health, but imagination and inventiveness. “In order to build what I’ve called the village effect,” Pinker asserts, “you need a community of real friends you see in the real world.”

Read More

For more on social neuroscience findings and the human need for real connection, consider reading:

  • Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, by Matthew D. Lieberman
  • Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick 
  • Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, by Daniel Goleman

You might also be interested in Susan Pinker’s TED talk The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life: youtube.com/watch?v=ptIecdCZ3dg.

Reference

  • Pinker, S. (2014). The village effect: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier and happier. Toronto, Canada: Random House Canada.

Marcia Ellett is a professional writer and editor. She is currently the assistant editor of ACA’s Camping Magazine.