We are Architects of our Own Experience

I echo Jenny Godwin’s sentiments in her Social Portfolio blog in taking stock of our connections. Outside of cohousing, we live in a culture that values materialism and wealth, with social ties taking a back seat. This despite evidence that “social capital” is a significant factor in health and happiness - more even than eating right, and exercising. We’ve heard the claim that cohousing adds 10 years to your life, and we can believe it.

As I describe “what is cohousing?” in talks and presentations, I add in “why should I care?” Folks are attracted to cohousing “lowering our carbon footprint” approaches; they like the idea of living smaller on the earth, of sharing resources. But it’s the very real notion of longevity and happiness through our focus on relationships that gets folks to sit up and listen. Deep down, we all know we are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us. For most of our history as humans, this is how we lived.

It’s easy to examine our finances. How many of us really look at our social portfolio?” implores one of the founders of Harbourside Cohousing. Indeed, this importance hit home upon reading an article in a book I picked up at Burlington Cohousing East Village. In “The Social Life of Genes,” author David Dobbs profiles how our social lives can change our gene expression, with significant impacts on our health and well being. While we may think of our bodies as “stable biological structures,” we’re actually more “fluid” than we realize, with new cells being built and reengineered each day. And that regeneration is affected by our social experience.

“Lonely people” studies have shown that HIV-positive men who were lonely also got sicker soon, regardless of whether they were closeted, and that people with richer social ties got fewer common colds. Feeling stressed or being isolated apparently shuts down our viral defenses, and plays a role in inflammatory immune responses. But even more, a pivotal study showed that genes driving inflammation to fight infection were very active in lonely people, even though they weren’t sick. UCLA researcher Steve Cole explained that although it’s known that stress is a risk factor for disease, “it can’t hold a candle to social isolation.” Dobbs writes “this helps explain why people who work in high-stress but rewarding jobs don’t seem to suffer ill effects.

But this gets even more interesting. A plethora of studies correlate poverty with disease, so what is it about a life of poverty that makes us ill? Diving deep, research indicates that the main thing driving screwy immune responses is not poverty, but whether a person in poverty sees the social world as scary. And what drives that? In another pivotal study, social support for children, defined as at least monthly contact with a trusted adult figure outside the home, came close to inoculating kids against “genetic vulnerability” leading to disease. Digging deeper, the research also showed that a lack of a reliable social connection harmed the kids as much as domestic abuse.

Dobb explains, “we sometimes conceive of social support as a sort of add-on, something extra that might somehow fortify us. Yet this view assumes that humanity’s default state is solitude. It’s not. Our default is connection. We are social creatures, and have been for eons.”

And as if this couldn’t get more interesting, I was fascinated by these comments from UCLA researcher Steve Cole, paraphrased by Dobbs: “You can’t change your genes. But if we’re even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave - which is almost the same thing...We’re constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little...We are architects of our own experience. Your subjective experience carries more power than your objective situation...If you feel like you’re well supported; if you come at the world with a sense that people care about you, that you’re valuable, that you’re okay; then your body is going to act as if you’re okay - even if you’re wrong about all that.

Cole’s final challenge gives me goose bumps: “Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months, or perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.

Read more: “The Social Life of Genes” by David Dobbs. First published in “Pacific Standard,” September 3, 2013, and included in “The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014” edited by Deborah Blum.

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