Is your pandemic bubble a keeper?
Among the many lessons learned in 2020, the power of a trusted friend group may be the most lasting. This summer, nearly half of Americans said they had formed a “pod” or social “bubble” — a select group of friends to help them cope with pandemic life.
It took a pandemic to teach us what many cultures have known all along — that friendship pods can give us healthier, happier lives. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, has studied the habits of people who live in “blue zones,” which are areas around the world where people live far longer than the average. He has consistently found that cultures with long life expectancies value strong social ties. In Okinawa, Japan, for example, where the average life expectancy for women is around 90, people form a kind of social network during childhood called a moai — a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support for a lifetime. Members of each moai also appear to influence one another’s lifelong health behaviors.
Mr. Buettner has worked in several cities to try to replicate the moai effect. In Naples, Fla., for instance, he found 110 people who wanted to improve their eating habits, and he started by grouping them by neighborhood. (“If they live too far apart, they don’t hang out,” he said.) Then he asked questions about shared interests and values, like whether a person watched Fox News or CNN, whether they liked beach vacations or hiking, attended church or liked country music. People with shared interests who lived close to each other formed “moais” of five or six people, and then planned five pot luck dinners together.
After 10 weeks of planning healthy meals together, everyone reported eating more plant-based foods, Mr. Buettner said. And 67 percent said they had made more friends, 17 percent had lost weight, 6 percent had lowered their blood pressure, 6 percent reported lower blood sugar and 4 percent reported lower cholesterol.
Moais can form around activities like walking or bird watching, healthy eating habits or hobbies, like photography. The key is to find like-minded people with shared values and goals. And once the groups form, the members tend to support one another in other ways. When one member of a walking moai in Southern California was diagnosed with cancer, other members of the group stepped in to help with meals and caregiving.
While pandemic life has stalled many of our social plans, we’ve also learned a lot about friendships, who we can depend on and even who matters less than we thought. Even if you didn’t form a social bubble, the new year is a good time to reflect on the friendships that counted the most during a difficult year.
“It’s not only the importance of social connections, but also leaning into anything we’ve learned about the relationships that matter,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Joy of Movement.” “What were the relationships that lasted during Covid is a really interesting thing to pay attention to. I’ll remember who kept texting when I wasn’t always texting back.”
Mr. Buettner noted that when it comes to forming healthy social groups, we sometimes have to re-evaluate friends who might be a lot of fun, but aren’t really making our life better.
“I used to have a group of friends who had a lot of unhealthy behaviors,” said Mr. Buettner, whose latest book is “The Blue Zones Kitchen.”
“They felt good to be around, but they weren’t good for me. I think it’s important to curate your pod. I’m not saying dump your old friends. I’m saying you want to be aware of the people who are additive to your life, who are going to give you the most good years going forward, and who aren’t going to infect you with their bad habits.”
To learn how to turn your pandemic pod (or any group of friends) into a health-oriented bubble, try today’s Well Challenge. Sign up for the Well newsletter to get the 7-Day Well Challenge in your inbox.
Form a Health Bubble
The Challenge: Try to turn your pandemic pod into a lasting social group focused on shared values and better health. Add or subtract members as needed.
Take a compatibility quiz: Health bubbles are most successful when people have similar attitudes, values and goals. You probably already know if you and your pandemic podmates like the same movies, vacation spots and social media sites. Now focus on key questions around health and lifestyle choices. In the past month, how often did each person take part in rigorous activity? How often was someone sad or depressed? Does anyone in the group smoke? How many vegetables do they eat? Do they eat sweets or junk food? How much alcohol do they drink? You can take the full quiz online here.
Curate or strengthen your pod: Is yours a pandemic pod of convenience or shared values? The answers to the compatibility quiz will tell you if you’re surrounding yourself with like-minded people who can help you achieve better health. If someone in the group is too negative or has lifestyle habits that bring you down, talk to them about their goals. If they want to make changes, support them. You may need to curate your pod or bring in new people who want to focus on healthy living.
Create a health goal: Start talking to your pod mates about long-term health goals. Do you want to exercise more? Try scheduling daily or weekly walk dates. Are you interested in cutting back on sugar or eating more plant-based foods? Make plans with your pod to share recipes and cook the same meals. Take Zoom cooking classes together, or do a Zoom exercise class of the 7-Minute Standing Workout. If you have Fitbits or smart watches, sync them so you can share step counts. Even if you can’t meet in person during pandemic restrictions, you can start supporting each other’s health goals now and build on them when we can all spend time together again.
“When you make a good friend, that could be a lifelong adventure,” Mr. Buettner said. “For those of us in middle age, having the right friends around us whose idea of something fun is physical activity, whose idea of eating healthy is plant-based, who care about you on a bad day, who can have a meaningful conversation — that beats any pill or supplement any day. It’s the best intervention you can invest in because it’s long lasting and has a measurable impact on your health and well-being.”