Book review: The Village Effect - why face-to-face contact matters
The Village Effect
by Susan Pinker
A few weeks ago I gave the eulogy at my father's funeral. As I spoke to the gathered mourners, I was struck by the fact that there was not a spare seat in the packed crematorium hall. He had five children and 11 grandchildren, but where had all these people come from?
My father was approaching his 88th birthday when he died. He had lived alone as a widower for 13 years, and I had assumed he didn't see many people, especially after he gave up driving. I would regularly take him to my house for Sunday lunch and then drive him back to what, I supposed, was a lonely life.
But speaking to mourners after the funeral, I learned my father had developed an extensive network of local friends. There was the family across the street who told me he was on first-name terms with all of the local bus drivers, whom he'd learned to address in their native tongues; the Indian family from the nearby newsagents who had a wealth of fond anecdotes about my dad; the Polish couple who ran the cafe that he visited regularly; and there was also a large number of old friends and their children with whom he had remained in close contact.
According to the mass of evidence Susan Pinker assembles in The Village Effect, the secret to my father's longevity was that he continued to see on a daily basis people he knew and liked. Chronic loneliness, she says, alters the expression of our genes in every cell of our bodies, and not in a good way.
Also, two neuropeptides - oxytocin and vasopressin - are secreted in the bloodstream when we form and maintain meaningful relationships, and these chemicals help to counter stress and to repair wounds.
We live in a health-obsessed age in which we are assailed by reports that tell us what we should and shouldn't eat and drink and do if we want to live long and well. But one of the principal determining factors for both are our social networks - the real ones, not those that exist on Facebook, Twitter and the like.
Pinker's book is steeped in prescriptive tips for developing "tools" to maximise "social capital". The slightly obvious advice, illustrative homilies and can-do approach to ageing seems better suited to the North American market. (Pinker is Canadian.)
But the temptation to pathologise certain behaviours is inherent to the self-improvement genre and The Village Effect, for all its careful discussion of the science and diligent reference to academic studies, is written very much from a self-improvement perspective.