Photo: Tegan Mierle/Unsplash
We’re not supposed to live alone — and, this is coming from someone who’s flat-shared for years throughout their 20s. Sometimes it worked great, others not so much — there were definitely times I would have preferred to live alone. But it’s about finding the right companions because living alone comes at a price.
Single-person households have become increasingly common in many countries across the world. In the US alone, the number of adults that live alone has more than doubled in the last 50 years and in many European cities, over 40% of homes are single-person households — In Stockholm for example, over 60% of homes are occupied by one person.
Incidentally, depression rates have increased globally, and The World Health Organization points to social isolation as a likely cause. It has signaled that smaller countries with stronger family ties and economies that rely more on farming than industry have lower depression rates; generally, cultures that emphasize collectivism as opposed to individualism have lower rates of depression.
Living in communities not only benefits our mental health but our overall wellbeing and quality of life.
In his quest to discover the key to longevity, National Geographic Fellow and multiple New York Times bestsellers, Dan Buettner discovered five places in the world where people live the longest, and healthiest lives.
- Okinawa, Japan;
- Sardinia, Italy;
- Nicoya, Costa Rica;
- Ikaria, Greece, and
- Loma Linda, California.
He termed these areas ‘blue zones’.
There is no one-size-fits-all lifestyle or diet that guarantees a healthier, longer life; every individual has their own unique needs. But, Dan found 9 specific lifestyle factors that permeated the lifestyles of individuals living in these ‘blue zones’, which, combined provide the key to longevity.
Amongst these factors are ‘Tribe’, ‘Belonging’, and ‘Putting Loved ones first’. Living in close communities appears to be a key contributor to enhancing both the quality and the duration of the lives of the elderly people in blue zones.
The Ultimate Example
I actually recently watched a documentary about Sue Perkins’ travels in Japan, during which, she visited a group of 80+-year-old women who free-dive off the coast of North Japan in mid-winter wearing nothing but a wet suit, flippers and goggles. They dive 10m without oxygen, in the freezing cold water, all to collect seafood to sell at their local market. It’s a tradition that’s been upheld for hundreds of years, so as you can probably imagine, they use to do this with no gear at all.
Most people couldn’t do that at any age, but at 80?! #goals
When Sue asked them what their secret for keeping so fit, strong and healthy was, perhaps surprisingly, they said — their community. The sense of companionship and support, they said, was what kept them going; it’s the thing that makes them happy, keeps them healthy and strong.
For thousands of years, humans have traveled in tribes and built communities that could only thrive with the support of the entire group. The human species has come to dominate above all others thanks to our ability to coordinate large groups, form governments, nations, hierarchies that enabled us to coexist in huge ‘tribes’. People helped raised each other, provide protection, companionship, emotional support, entertainment; because we realized — we’re stronger together.
In more recent years, and especially as a result of industrialization, we’ve begun to prioritize individual success as opposed to collective survival. We often perceive individuals who are ‘successful’ as those who look like some version of Harvey Spencer in Suits or Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada; someone living in an amazing apartment, who works in a shiny corner office with views over the city and an ora so cold that anybody who gets too close might freeze.
A prime example of how ingrained this perception is in our culture is our use of the expression “Don’t be a sheep”; a phrase often used to imply that it’s bad to follow the herd, that we need to stand out and be ‘individual’. Sheep, like many other species of animals, including humans, live in herds for protection; it’s natural.
We’re all inherently unique. By definition, it’s in our DNA. We don’t need to distance ourselves from others to prove we’re individuals.
My advice to you is to find your tribe and nurture it. Because whilst the benefits of companionship might seem obvious, building ‘your tribe’ might not be something you ever really thought to invest your efforts in. At least I hadn’t.
Why I'm building my tribe
Over the past six years, I haven’t stopped moving from one country to another, whether it be for studies or for work. I’ve so far prioritized my education and building a career, without giving much (if any) thought at all to my long-term relationships; about building a ‘tribe’ that I can grow together with.
I don’t mean to imply that any of this is negative — investing in your education and building a career are very legitimate ambitions to have. Plus, living abroad has allowed me to meet incredible people from all over the world, and I’ve had some amazing experiences.
That said, all of my friends are scattered. I don’t have a ‘group’ that I’ve grown up with, that knows me inside-out, that I can gravitate to for support. I have amazing friends, but I’m not necessarily close to them in the literal sense. In fact, some friends I don’t even see every year, including some of my best friends.
The correlation between single-person households and depression that I referred to above is most salient in cities. My experiences living abroad have always involved me living in cities; I was surrounded by people all the time, in fact, I didn’t even live alone. Yet, I still felt very lonely a lot of the time.
I always had many acquaintances and several great friends. But these only knew a part of me, they knew who I was at that particular time, at that particular place. Perhaps that’s why I often felt lonely; I think there’s another level of understanding that comes from long-term relationships. Of course, this isn’t always the case. But generally, there’s a sense of familiarity and belonging that comes from having a close group of friends that has seen you grow up.
I at least have reached a turning point this year. I’ve decided it’s been too long since I felt the warmth and the sense of security that I get from being close to family and friends. So, I’m moving back home; at least for now. The time has come for me to work on building my tribe. Do you have yours?