I came across this widely read book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It starts with a story about the residents of a secluded town called Roseto in Pennsylvania, United States. The book itself describes how success is not just about hard work but also the circumstances that enables a person to put in that hard work in the first place. This is insightful because it makes you think about how you can make some conscious choices on your road to success.
But what intrigued me was this story about the town of Roseto. Roseto was named after a town in Italy called “Roseto Valfortore” from where a number of Italian immigrants came to the United States in small chunks in the late 1800s looking for opportunities. By the 1940s, it was a very simple town with 1700 people living in houses clustered with each other. The Rosetans had typical lives where the men went for work and the women took care of the house & worked in the day, the children went to school and returned back home to their grandparents.
The town itself became self-sustained over time and had no reason to stay in touch with the neighboring towns. Nobody knew what Roseto was really up to. In the 1950s, while people from all the towns visited a local physician with illnesses, rarely anybody from Roseto under the age of 65 years happened to visit him with a “Heart Disease”.
A comparison study of deaths due to Myocardial Infarction (Heart Attack), of people over 35 years of age shows that between 1955-1964 there were 29 deaths per 1000 people in Roseto but in a neighboring town called Bangor, which is only a mile away, there were 196 deaths per 1000 people. If we look at the numbers for 20 years before that, between 1935-1954 per 1000 people there were only 28 deaths in Roseto but 221 deaths in Bangor.
This is especially surprising because, Rosetans had one of the unhealthiest diets, they were struggling with obesity and were heavy smokers. Neither did they work-out nor did they go for morning walks and none of them had an active lifestyle. Yet, the people of Roseto rarely had any heart disease. There has to be a secret native to just Roseto.
Rosetans turned the “I” into a “We”
In a more general context, we are always taught in life to be independent and think as an individual for yourself. This makes us think about questions like:
- Am I happy right now?
- Am I doing what I like?
- Did I make a good first impression?
- Is what I am doing in my best interest and will that benefit me? If yes how?
A common thing about the questions is, there is too much of “I” in it. These questions take us from one thing to another and we realize that we have become too involved with ourselves. This makes us overly self-conscious, anxious, impatient and shifts our focus away from the important people around us who really matter.
Rosetans turned the “I” into a “We”. They intentionally did not hide the secret to their low death rate due to heart disease, the secret simply was in the way they lived. They were a classic example of how a supportive “Community” should be. The fact that there were rarely a few people with heart disease, was at complete odds with the unhealthy lifestyle they had. They were just a bunch of happy people with no major age-related illnesses and just died of old age.
The People of Roseto lived like they were one Big Family and that was their secret. Even though the smaller families were independent to a certain degree, they all lived like a close-knit community. Majority of them were part of at least one community group and they spent time with each other doing things as simple as talking & playing cards and board games. They also went together on evening strolls and visited church for festivals. The houses had at least 3 generations of a family living under one roof unlike the nuclear families we see now.
The people and neighbors in general, supported each other in times of distress, just like people in a family would do. Materialism was not a thing at all and everyone lived modest lives including the wealthy who were not flamboyant. All of this resulted in very low stress levels among the Rosetans. So essentially, to live happy and stress free, we’ll have to live like the Rosetans.
Some key takeaways on how to be happy and stress-free like the Rosetans:
- Find ways to spend time with supportive and caring people. They can be family members or friends who might just be the right mental support one needs.
- Live modest lives without endlessly wanting more.
- Meet people in person more often, than making up for it by chatting on social media (like we do now).
- Genuinely care for others around you, they might actually take it forward and care for others.
BUT, then there came a time…
Rosetans were happy and stress-free for sure, but then there came a time when the grandparents and older residents started dying due to old age. Men and women of the town were hardworking and they did so for the betterment of their children. When these children grew up, they moved out of town for better education. Intuitively, the social culture of spending time with and helping each other out started fading.
People were less satisfied with what they had and looked towards a more materialistic life to satisfy themselves. They started building fences around their houses and bought expensive cars looking at their neighbors. Inevitably, this was as a result of the increasing average household income in the United States over the decades from 1935 onwards.
Average household income in the United States was approximately $2,000 in 1935 and this increased to $6,000 in 1960. From this point on in the 1960s till the early 2000s, income levels were on a steep rise. In 1972, average household income was approximately $11,000 which increased (more than double) by 118% to $24,000 in 1984.
- Do income levels have any relation with the rates of heart attacks resulting from stressful and unhappy lives?
- Has chasing for more, left us with less?
- Does materialism really bring happiness?
According to WHO fact sheet (2018), out of all causes of human deaths, the most common in the world is Ischaemic Heart Disease which approximately took 9.5 million lives in 2016. The fact sheet also gives a breakup of the top 10 causes of death by income level of countries in 2016.
In the top 10 causes of deaths in countries by incomes level in the World (2016), Ischaemic Heart Disease was ranked:
- 3rd in the low-income countries – 50 deaths (per 100,000 population)
- 1st in the lower-middle-income countries – 120 deaths (per 100,000 population)
- 1st in the upper-middle-income countries – 140 deaths (per 100,000 population)
As we move up the income ladder from low-income (less than $1,035) to lower-middle income ($1,036 to $4,045) countries and further up to upper-middle-income ($4,046 to $12,535) countries, there is a clear insight that the death rate by ischaemic heart disease is increasing per 100,000 as we move up the ladder in countries with higher income.
In the current context of the pandemic in 2020, the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) threatened the existence of mankind. Like we know, COVID-19 is a communicable disease unlike Ischaemic Heart Disease which is a non-communicable disease.
Globally, we could clearly see the fast spread of the virus so the countries went on a complete lockdown starting Q1 2020, in order to contain the spread of the virus and save precious human lives. But, figuratively speaking, Ischaemic Heart Disease has been spreading (growing) since a century now in broad day light. Why hasn’t there been a panic lockdown of sorts to bring the death rates down? Is there anything possible that can be done to curb the issue across the globe? Has chasing growth been the be-all and end-all of the reason to live satisfied?
“If you want to change the world, start with yourself”
– Mahatma Gandhi
There is no way we can comprehend how the world became the way it is now, stressed, growth oriented & living for the future. One good thing we can do is change our individual self. It is comforting that the solution to living happy and free from heart disease or any illness is to simply live with like-minded & supportive people and that should keep you stress free. Especially because we humans are 7.5 Billion in number on planet earth. How obvious can it become?
Of course, we all live in different places with varying densities of population, political unrests and so on. But the mere idea of staying happy and stress free, if you have concerned people around is an absolute bargain. After all, the Rosetans showed us the way in the 20th century, we might as well try living like them for the better.