Often, we can believe that the more independent we are, the more admirable we are, and that accepting help is a sign of weakness. However, I want to challenge this idea and discuss the evidence that demonstrates the positive effects of community and collaboration. This includes a 50-year old research study of the American town of Roseto, which reported some truly astounding positive impacts on its citizens’ health brought about by a greater sense of community. I want to compare this to my own research (albeit a little less formal!) carried out at the age of 12 in a secret club I started with my two best friends called the Experimental Signal of Good 🙂
Over the last eight months of chemotherapy and convalescence, I have come to believe strongly in the importance of giving and receiving help, and that goodness comes full circle. I found a great deal of inspiration in the following quote:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
The Roseto Effect
Roseto is a small town in Pennsylvania, 120 km west of New York. The population is 1,650 with only 476 families making up the community. It owes its name, which means “rose garden” in Italian, to the European immigrants who founded it. However, there are no rose gardens in Roseto, only small brick houses. The city is ordinary in every way. That was until the 1970s, when extraordinary data on Roseto’s rates of heart disease were published.
In the 1960s, this little town has zero people die under the age of 45 from heart attack, a minimal mortality rate for those in middle age, and, the number of over 65s dying of heart attacks was half the national average. This was an anomaly. Neighbouring towns had similar rates to the rest of the country. So, what was special about Roseto?
Scientists studying this phenomenon quickly ruled out exceptional levels of health in the town or lower rates of poor health behaviours, like addiction to smoking or alcohol. The people of Roseto led ordinary, not particularly healthy lives. They smoked cigars without a filter, drank lots of wine, and ate lard-fried sausages and lots of cheese. Most of the men worked in toxic conditions in the nearby slate quarries, and the women looked after the children and the household from morning until night.
Eventually, scientists uncovered what they called the “Roseto Effect”. This is the term they used to describe the unique characteristics of the town that they identified as being instrumental to its unusual levels of health. These characteristics included the extremely close-knit nature of the town, the equality of resources, and the time that the community spent together.
Within one generation, however, Roseto experienced a huge social change. This small, isolated town became more connected with the rest of the country and the wider world. Residents started commuting to New York City for work. Social differences began to emerge. Those who could afford it built larger houses and fenced them off. They drove better cars and no longer had time to spend their Sunday afternoons with their neighbours. In 1971, the first person under 45 died of a heart attack. As residents adopted a more stressful lifestyle typical of the Western world, their health and wellbeing suffered.
What can we learn from this story? We all have a deep drive to seek connection, support, love, and a sense of community, but all too often we neglect this in pursuit of individual gain. In Roseto, we see the stark contrast between a life centred on community and a life centred on individualism. We are happier and healthier when we connect with one another. Rather than viewing asking for help as neediness or weakness, why not embrace it? See it instead for what it is: self-empowerment for a better life.
Responding to help
If you are used to being the helper, rather than the recipient of help, it can be difficult to reverse roles and be the one to ask for help.
I remember, right after my first chemotherapy, I wanted to clean my kitchen. My mom, who was helping to care for me at the time, found me balancing on one leg on a chair, shoving pots into a cupboard. In retrospect, it seems comical, but my mother was very upset with me and ordered me back to bed. At first, I was angry with her that she was depriving me of the opportunity to clean—an opportunity I was never that enthusiastic about while healthy! However, as soon as I got to bed, I immediately fell asleep.
I know now that it wasn’t about the “pleasure” of cleaning my kitchen. It was about proving to myself that I could do it. But I couldn’t. My body needed time to rest and heal. And that’s ok. It’s allowed. With time, I came to appreciate and accept the help of my loved ones: A friend who brought vegetarian dishes to the hospital; my mom who cooked the best tomato soup; my mother-in-law who sewed me a turban; and my sister who lives on the other side of the country but called every day to ask how I was feeling. These are beautiful memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
ESG – Experimental Signal of Good
Reciprocation was key to helping me accept help. Of course, I wasn’t able to reciprocate equally the goodness and kindness that was extended to me, but I decided to use a method I developed with my friends back when I was 12 years old to do what little I could to pay it forward.
At age 12, I was reading a light-hearted series of books for young people by Małgorzata Musierowicz. In one of them, “The Flower of the Cauliflower“, the main characters founded an ESG (Experimental Signal of Good) Discussion Society to study the impact of a smile (signal of good) on other people. My two friends and I decided to start our own secret ESG club. We set about smiling at people when the opportunity arose and helping them in any small way we could. We took notes and would diligently compare our findings. I actually found these notes recently and I am, of course, still bound by our pact of eternal secrecy so cannot share specifics but suffice to say they were earnest, funny, and heart-warming. Our little project yielded great results. By projecting joy and positivity, we received it in return. This innocent childhood game had a profound effect on me as a young person, so much so that I remembered in during my treatment, and the positive impact that even just a smile can have on people. I decided that this would be my way of returning some of the goodness into the world that I was receiving.
In hospital, I tried to chat and joke with patients who were going through a difficult time; I thanked the ladies who cleaned my room and asked them about their day. At home, whenever I felt able, I cooked nice meals for my partner and prepared sandwiches for him to bring to work. I tried to remember to call my ninety-year-old grandmother, who doesn’t call too often because she doesn’t want to disturb me. I tried, in my own small way, to give back some of the kindness that had been bestowed on me, and in doing so, I felt again more connected and part of something bigger and stronger than myself. Remember that goodness comes full circle. Give and accept help freely, and you will be stronger for it.