THE BLOG
09/19/2013 10:54 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013

Can Online Communities Be Healing?

During the past 20 years, there has been a radical shift in our culture with the breakdown of the social networks and structures that used to provide us with a sense of connection and community. Because of this, the most pervasive epidemic in our culture is loneliness, isolation, and depression.

We all know that these factors affect the quality of our lives. However, research has shown that it affects the quantity of our lives -- our survival.

The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food.

Study after study has shown that people who are lonely, depressed, and isolated -- the most pervasive epidemics in our country -- are three to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a strong sense of connection and community. I don't know any factor in medicine that has a more powerful influence on our health and well-being.

When I first began conducting research 36 years ago, I initially saw support groups as useful for helping people adhere to changes in diet, exercise, and stress management techniques. What I soon realized is that the support groups were one of the most powerful interventions on their own terms.

In our program, support groups are safe places in which people can connect at a deep level. We can only be intimate to the degree we can make ourselves emotionally vulnerable -- opening our hearts -- and we can only do that to the degree that we feel safe.

So, the overarching principle in our support groups is to engender trust by creating a safe environment in which people can express their feelings to each other in open and honest ways. It's the major reason why our studies are showing 85-90 percent adherence to our intensive lifestyle program after a year.

If it's meaningful, it's sustainable. Intimacy is healing.

Even the word "healing" comes from the root, "to make whole." The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit word meaning, "to yoke," to bring together, to connect. These are very old ideas that we're rediscovering.

Nicholas Christakis at Harvard conducted research published in The New England Journal of Medicine and described in his TED talk showing how powerful these connections are:

• If your friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 45 percent higher;
• If your friend's friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25 percent higher;
• If your friend's friend's friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 10 percent higher -- even if you've never met them!

That's how interconnected we are.

This pattern is also seen with many other measures, including smoking, drinking, depression, happiness, altruism, even predicting epidemics.

Here's some good news: These researchers found that social distance is more important than geographical distance. We found the same thing.

In other words, what matters most is feeling loved and supported by people you care about. It's great to be with them in person, but even a text message, a phone call, or an online community can be healing.

And that's the opportunity.

While the digital age has done so much to improve our world, it has dramatically changed our social structure, often further isolating us from each other. (If you've ever seen teenagers at a party or meal texting each other rather than talking to each other, you know what I mean.) With everything that you can imagine at our fingertips, many of the social interactions that help tie people together in a community have faded away. Are communities traditionally built on relationships, trust and familiarity a thing of the past?

A few years ago, I met Matt Michelsen, an engaging energetic entrepreneur who at the time was bringing people together in a highly interactive manner through a website his company, Backplane, developed for Lady Gaga. He was so successful in developing her community (LittleMonsters.com) that she had more followers than anyone on the planet. He's a social networking genius.

We talked about community and his idea of taking offline community interactions and behavior and translating those into online connections. What Backplane had developed was a truly social form of social media in that website LittleMonsters.com was built to connect people around shared interests rather than shared connections.

I asked Matt to help me create an online community in support of our work, Feel the Love, a supportive community for people who are interested in leading a healthful lifestyle. The community connects around the challenges and triumphs of doing just that. They celebrate each other's success and provide support for those who are facing obstacles.

As Feel the Love continues to grow, I'm proud of the interaction and support that the members provide to each other. They're passionate about health and they share things inside the community walls that they might not share elsewhere. I find myself routinely inspired by the courage the members have in opening up to each other of their own journeys and I enjoy reading and conversing with the members directly on the site.

Dean Ornish, M.D.
Medical Editor, The Huffington Post
Founder and President, Preventive Medicine Research Institute
Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco
www.ornish.com

For more by Dr. Dean Ornish, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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