Voices: The small town in the US where people were healthier and lived longer – and the simple reason why

In 1950s America, there was a mystery in the small Pennsylvanian town of Roseto. Mortality rates were a third lower than in the rest of the United States. Heart disease was almost non-existent in otherwise high-risk groups. No one could work out why.

Water sources were analysed, lifestyles were examined. It wasn’t their diet – wine, cigars and meatballs were consumed with abandon. It wasn’t the healthcare or the air quality.

It was the relationships.

Three to four generations lived under one roof. Neighbours had deep bonds of trust with one another. This town were the best of friends.

It turns out the secret of eternal life is not what you know, but who you know.

In contrast, the events of three years ago play in my memory like grainy camcorder footage. PE with Joe, queues for toilet roll, news of trips to Barnard Castle, clapping on doorsteps and daily government updates. “Next slide please”.

I wince as I recall the vernacular that dominated my Twitter feed in the unprecedented “new normal”. Before March 2020 I would have assumed an R-number was something I had missed in GCSE maths, furlough was something to do with agriculture, and Jonathan Van Tam played football for the Netherlands.

But for me, the nostalgia ends there. Like many, I had a horrible 2020. My first book as an author was published the week that all the book shops closed. And then we found out that my mum’s cancer was terminal. She died on 8th June.

Two things got me through the ordeal: faith and friendship. I was surrounded by friends, and I will always remember with gratitude who was there for me.

But for some at that time, social distancing did mean social isolation. The ONS found a million more people described feeling lonely always or often over the course of 2020. And the shockwaves remain. The Movember Foundation found that as many as 1 in 3 men have no close friends.

The picture is not much brighter for women. 40 per cent of 16–24-year-olds say they “always or often” feel lonely. The extraordinary technology in our pockets and palms make us the most connected generation in history, and yet the pressures of life and the prevailing narrative of individualism are painting a devastatingly disconnected picture.

Studies have shown that if we don’t have a close friend, the levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase significantly, with fatal consequences. Cortisol is the fight or flight chemical that gets us out of bed and away from danger, but a consistently high baseline means bodily resources are drawn away from core biological business, meaning we are more vulnerable to illness, heart disease, cancers and diabetes.

Conversely, friendship is astonishingly powerful. It has profoundly positive effects on our mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Even if you eat badly, do no exercise and neglect other areas of your physical health, but have good friends, you will live longer than someone who is socially isolated. It is better to eat kebabs with friends than salad on your own.

As the inhabitants of Roseto could testify, finding time for relational connection is seriously good for your health.

I’ve just finished writing my second book, this one friendship. Gladly, this time a pandemic has not stopped it hitting the shelves. Almost everyone wants to be a better friend, but we need a louder conversation about what this looks like. I believe friendship is the most important, least talked about relationship in our society.

The pressures on our relationships are real. But so is the potential for change. We are relationally wired, created for connection. We may not be able to achieve the utopia of 1950s Pennsylvania, but we can all be more intentional and sacrificial in this area.

A friend of mine told me you fall in love, but you make friends. The art of friendship really matters, desperately needs rediscovering and is worthy of our time. The sciences, sociologists, sages and Scriptures agree: it is not good for us to be alone.

So may we remember well and lament the inadequacies of after-work drinks, birthday parties, weddings and funerals on Zoom. May we prioritise growing our relational muscles and friendship circles. May we pursue quality over quantity, trust over suspicion and depth over superficiality.

Let’s not face the challenges of life alone. We can all raise our game in this area. May we commit to being the best of friends. It really is a matter of life and death.

Phil Knox is the author of The Best of Friends