Solitude has it’s place. There is value in silence and our ability to sit with our own soul and reflect. There is also a good deal of involuntary isolation that we experience in our modern lives. New research shows that our individual health and collective well-being could benefit from spending more time moving together.
One of my favorite activities is walking with a group of friends. In college, we hit the trails on Sunday mornings, followed by brunch at the local coffee shop. It was a chance to catch up on what was happening in everyone’s lives, and to enjoy some time outside. Through being pregnant, to being pregnant plus having a baby in a stroller, to stealing walks while the kids are in school; I’ve always looked forward to these times. Our conversations meander from the profound to the mundane, often including tears of both laughter and of pain.
A recent study out of Norwich Medical School in Norwich, England, looked at the health benefits of being part of a walking group. Interestingly, many of the health markers they looked at, including blood pressure, body fat, total cholesterol, depression and quality of life were improved even when the amount of time spent walking did not meet recommendations for physical activity. It’s clear that there is more to group walking than simple exercise.
Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist and a pioneer in finding what happens in us biologically that helps to build trust and morality in a society. His findings suggest that oxytocin, a hormone that is most widely known for it’s role in childbirth and sex, is also found to be an extremely important component of morality. Zak has called oxytocin “the moral molecule”, and his work has shown that it is responsible for building both trustworthiness and empathy within individuals who are part of a group. In his research, he isolated oxytocin and administered it through a nasal spray. Though this isolation was necessary for controlled studies, there are other proven ways to increase oxytocin levels that are suitable in a group context. These include, dancing, praying, hugging, and walking.
I’m reminded of those many mornings after walking with my friends, and the sense of contentment and connection that stayed with me. It was certainly more heightened than on days when I walked alone. My days were better after walking and talking with my group.
It seems then, that to create a strong, healthy and connected community, we might begin by lacing up our sneakers in groups, meeting at the head of the trail, and letting our connection grow as we wind our way through the hills and valleys of our collective experience. Sharing the joy, the pain, and the growth of being human together.