Hello. Is it courtesy you’re looking for?
I woke up to a broken water pump this morning. As luck would have it, our backup pump decided to go on walkabout as well.
Living in Anguilla, a 35-square-mile island in the Eastern Caribbean, isn’t easy. Our home is next to the ocean, and maintenance is a never-ending struggle against the sea, salt and sun. No matter how hard I try, they’re eventually victorious. And without a Home Depot or Menard’s, simple repairs can consume my day (and my patience).
Swearing and spitting, I headed to the supermarket. As I walked away from my car with gritted teeth, I passed a man coming out of the building.
“Mornin’! You OK?” he asked.
“Could be better!” I said.
“Could always be worse,” he replied.
After 16 years of living here, I have begun to notice certain characteristics among the locals.
For starters, the number of people who reach a ripe old age is remarkable. Hardly a week goes by that a local isn’t recognized for celebrating a 95th, 98th or even 100th birthday. How can this be so common in a place that has suffered years of poverty and hunger because of an unjust relationship with other islands—a place where conveniences are hard to come by, services are unpredictable and dubious politics are a national pastime? And yet, similarly surprising, the people of Anguilla are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
Two unspoken expectations foster daily engagement between people on the island. First, if it is before noon and you walk into a store or an office or even pass someone on the road, you’d better say, “Good morning!” loud enough for everyone to hear. And if it is after noon, “Good day!” is in order. Second, if “Hellos” are exchanged, followed by an “All right?” you better respond with something like, “So far. You OK?” The man who greeted me outside the supermarket had followed the local customs beautifully.
I’ve come to see that these greetings aren’t just courtesies; they’re expressions of concern. And I’ve wondered if this concern somehow plays a role in longevity here. Does reaching out to people minimize loneliness and isolation? When we say, “Howdy!” does it make a difference to the people around us? Research suggests that it may.
A 2012 study from the Archives of Internal Medicine found that loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death. Another study from the same year in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry saw a link between loneliness and dementia in older people (which is somewhat worrisome to me since I’m approaching this stage of life with alarming speed). And according to a 2003 study published in Science, being excluded (which can lead to feeling lonely) triggered activity in the same areas of the brain that register pain.
A 2010 study from PLoS ONE found that people who have strong ties to family, friends or coworkers are 50 percent more likely to outlive those with fewer social connections. But despite these findings, with computers and smartphones increasingly replacing face-to-face interactions, society seems to be growing more detached.
The good news? Making a difference takes minimal effort. A 2011 study published in Psychological Science reported a link between eye contact and feelings of inclusion—even eye contact with strangers.
To continue the story above, the man’s response made me pause in my ruminations of rage. Indeed, things could be worse. I thought about how blue the sky was and the ocean’s warm waters. I considered the delightful fact that I didn’t have to punch a clock. And you know what? I felt better.
Maybe you can reach out and make someone feel better too. You might just increase their lifespan.