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Creating Community and Finding Shangri-La

Originated by: Tammy Pilisuk

Submitted: 22 Jun 2012

Last updated on: 22 Jun 2012

Related Health Topics:

Expanding Horizons of Social Determinants of Health

In public health these days, there’s a lot of buzz around “social determinants of health” (SDOH).  I see this growing awareness as extremely positive.  In the recent PBS series Designing Healthy Communities, hosted by Dr. Richard Jackson from UCLA, he focuses the first three episodes on the correlation between one’s built environment, access to fresh foods (AKA “food deserts”), poor air quality in low income neighborhoods, and high rates of asthma, diabetes and obesity. But what really struck me was episode four. 

Shangri-La: Connectedness with People

Episode 4 is titled Searching for Shangri-La. The theme focuses on something that is difficult to quantify: the value of community in keeping us healthy. Dr. Jackson invites viewers to explore the town of Roseto and the so-called “Roseto Effect.”

In a nutshell, if you feel connected to friends, family and neighbors, with a strong sense of community, you’re going to be healthier. The value of the Roseto Effect really does make a difference. Community, social connections, call it what you may…can keep you healthier and enhance quality of life.

Public Health Challenge: Recognizing and Supporting Shagrilas

Back in 1986, my father, a professor in social psychology, wrote a book called the Healing Web. The treatise examined how social networks impact health in a variety of ways. The book emphasizes critical concepts like interdependence, social connectedness as social support as key elements in healthy living.

Around the same time, I was volunteering at a groundbreaking nonprofit, founded by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, which encouraged poor seniors living in single room occupancy residential hotels in San Francisco to come out of their rooms, meet their neighbors, promote safety, access to fresh foods, and eventually to organize for tenants rights. People not only socialized, they banned together to work for the common good of their neighborhood.

This is as tangible a public health goal as fighting obesity or promoting “healthy living.” Why? Because isolation is unhealthy, for our elders, people with disabilities, those without access to transportation, teens separated from friends and organized after-school activities—and the list goes on.

Modern Living: Connected or Isolated?

I started wondering. Why not harness the technology that now connects us so easily? It should be a huge advantage. So is it? According to researchers, social media, like FaceBook, are illusionary.  In fact, there’s some evidence that says virtual social networkers are lonelier. Translation? Your cyber friends simply don’t replace old-fashioned in-person interactions. Social networking definitely has its place. But it’s apparently a poor substitute for actual socializing—the kind that keeps us healthy.

What We Can Do to Build Shangri-La in Our Communities

The first step is recognizing the value of social relationships and interactions. Really, any leisure activity that connects you with others is likely to help. Personally, I love this NPR piece where pop legend Brian Eno endorses sing-alongs as a key to long life! 

Next, as public health leaders, we need to connect the dots back to Dr. Jackon’s series on Designing Healthy Communities. They don’t make themselves. They are made because “we” stand up and participate in city and regional planning.  Take the Census Project this is an effort to assess our communities are evolving, who lives in them, and what their needs are.

As was pointed out eloquently in the recent HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation, Part 4 Challenges, it’s not just about getting a healthy place for kids to play where none exists. It’s also about bringing the community out together, building connections that may stem from a common cause, but end up creating bonds and building healthy social activities among neighbors.

And, social networks can be used to good advantage. Neighborhood and organization listservs can invite people to local events, encourage volunteering, and build awareness of local issues that bring people together. Check out the Instigate online toolkit or the National Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention’s  Take Action, Create Change toolkit for community mobilizing.

It gets back to the SDOH.  Communities can be created or changed to foster farmer’s markets, walking and bike paths, public transportation, service clubs, volunteer opportunities—structures and systems that allow people to come together, mingle, and perhaps find a little Shangri-La. In other words, d’oh! It’s the community!


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