I really should apply for a grant. It seems there are studies commissioned to discover the most obvious truths, studies published in prestigious journals. I'm in the wrong line of work.
The latest of those is described in a recent New England Journal of Medicine. These clever researchers (clever because they thought to apply for a grant!) have learned that social networks have an even greater effect on the chance of becoming obese than genes do.
I'm not sure why this is news. AA and OA and all the other "Anonymous" groups have meetings and sponsors because they recognize the power of community. Many people make work-out commitments with a buddy in an effort to stick with it. Peer pressure is a well-documented phenomenon.
A friend of mine worked at a local university researching strategies for discouraging smoking among college kids (yet another lucky grant recipient). Her findings: It all depended on what they believed their friends were doing. If they thought their classmates were smoking, they were more likely to start. If they thought they weren't, that was the most effective deterrent.
These are important ideas when developing strategies for dealing with these widespread problems. They're just not new. The Jewish people have known the power of community since time immemorial. When the Jews went down to Egypt, they asked for the land of Goshen, a place where they could live as a unique and separate community.
This was and is one of the secrets to our survival. Community life reinforces community goals and standards and helps keep destructive values at bay.
One of the most painful punishments in the times of the Torah required separation from the community and conversely, anyone who voluntarily abandoned the Jewish people in times of trouble faced serious consequences.
We see clearly the power of peers for our children (particularly our teenagers). But we shouldn't diminish its power for ourselves. We need community.
While some American movies endorse the ideas of the noble, principled loner (think Clint Eastwood), this is not the Jewish ideal. We are meant to live together -- to help each other, support each other, and reinforce our values.
A community that shares our values allows us to grow and thrive.
While the New England Journal of Medicine piece was focused on eating, particularly obesity, there are even more serious issues at stake. A community that shares our values allows us to grow and thrive. We aspire to live up to the standards it sets. A community with values contrary to our own also has an impact. We are not immune (just read the studies!).
If we spend time with people who gossip, we will gossip. If we spend time with people whose focus is fashion and shopping, our focus will become fashion and shopping. If we spend time with people who mock learning and growing, we will find ‘more acceptable' pastimes.
On the other hand, if we spend time with people whose focus is spiritual, our focus will be directed in a loftier direction. If we spend time with people who shun malicious slander, we will probably keep our mouths shut. And if we spend time with people whose goal is to actualize their potential and be the best they can be, then we will be motivated to do the same.
It's all up to us. Choosing to live in a supportive community makes a big difference to our lives. We don't need a study to tell us that. And why do all the studies have to tell me to stop eating?!