Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Geographic Cure: The Right Community Can Help You Thrive

When I first started working with HIV/AIDS in Vermont, because so many of the people with HIV were diagnosed in other parts of the country, particularly large cities, the expression was, “they came for the geographic cure.” Those that were involved in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) would knowledgably shake their head and quote the “Big Book,” “there is no such things as a “Geographical Cure” because “wherever you go, there you are.” Some people did relapse and return to substance using. However, there were a number that felt that the temptations and “triggers” for using weren’t here for them. They also found supportive communities, and so have done quite well with the “geographic cure.”

At the same time the AA groups were not approving of the transplants, a number of Native Americans were moving back to ancestor lands in Vermont and Canada. They would say, “Ah, I’m back in country” and life became easier for many of them.  

After living in Vermont for over 25 years I understand both sides of this discussion. Moving does not solve emotional problems and for the most part, moving for a fresh start, without having dealt with underlying or “root” issues is only going to have minimal impact if any.  

If you find yourself continually moving, and it’s not because of a job transfer, you might want to think seriously about your feelings of discontent and address them before you plan your next big move.

According to Blue Zones  research, one of the biggest contributors to our happiness is the community in which we live.  More than income, education level, or religion, the place where you live determines your level of happiness.  Look for neighborhoods with sidewalks, meeting places and other characteristics that nudge you into social interaction. Easy access to green spaces and recreation also favors well-being.
To better understand the community you live in,  consider how it meets the following characteristics: 
• Community Space: Are there parks, cafes, restaurants and places where community can and does gather? Are there community events that bring people together?

• Quiet Surroundings: Human’s don’t adapt to noise and in fact there are many studies which show that even constant low level noise increases cardiovascular disease and other health problems.  

• Walking: Can you walk to church, parks, grocery stores etc.? Check your community’s WalkScore  to find out how it fares in terms of walkability.  

• Safety: Do you feel safe in your community?

• Good friends and social connections: Do you have good friends where you live. According to Dan Buettner of Blue Zones, "the happiest people in America socialize about seven hours a're three times more likely to be happy if you are married ... and each new friend will boost your happiness about 10 percent."

• Employment: Can you find a job in and around your community?

Weather is also a major contributor, which you can’t control, but it does make a big difference in how people feel. My son and husband can’t stand gray weather for very long. It caused my husband to give up a great community in Seattle and my son to change colleges after a year in Paris. At the same time a raindrop makes them shutter, a good friend in Vermont hates it if there are too many sunny days in a row. She claims that she should be living someplace where it’s perpetually rainy.  In short, different people enjoy different types of weather and at different times of their lives. 

There is also the culture of a community to consider. Coming from a fairly southern city, it has been a big adjustment for me to try and live in a rural northern New England town. Fences don’t make good neighbors where I came from, but that is standard practice where I now live. I grew up in a “porch sit” culture, which doesn’t exist here. I miss it terribly and while I’ve tried to introduce aspects of this into my community, I truly am the odd man out.

Changing where you live is not easy, particularly if you are there because of a job, family and/or it’s what you can afford.  You can improve how you react to your community by seeking out social gathering places; trying to meet new people by being involved in different activities; volunteering; seeking out green space and places to exercise; and helping to create the community you want to live in. Check out the Blue Zones Thrive Centers  for more suggestions.

The bottom line is this: Where you live does impact your sense of well-being and health.
If you find yourself continually thinking “I really don’t belong here,” chances are you don’t. We do take our emotional baggage wherever we go, but community should not be adding to it. 

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