11/18/2013 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do You Belong?

Photo: flickr

An important driver for a lifestyle of optimism is a sense of purpose. There's much truth in Nietzche's "If you know the why, you can live any how."

Ultimately, what creates purpose is the experience that one is able to make a meaningful contribution to someone else's life. We are social beings and we need each other to find meaning and fulfillment. There's a clear relationship between purpose and connection.

Lynne McTaggart, editor of What Doctors Don't Tell You, writes about a fascinating study in her book The Bond: How to Fix Your Falling-Down World. Public health researchers have long been puzzled by an apparent contradiction. Japan produces the largest number of centenarians in the world. Currently, there are 40,000 Japanese who have celebrated their hundredth birthday. The majority of those centenarians are women, but many of them are men too. Moreover Japan has one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.

Here's the strange phenomenon: Virtually all Japanese men smoke -- and smoking counts as one of the strongest risk factors for heart disease. So what's protecting Japanese men?

Two professors of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to find out. They selected a group of 12,000 Japanese men equally divided over three groups. The men in one group had lived in Japan for all their lives. The second group had migrated to California and the third group to Hawaii.

The two professors found that the level of heart disease among Japanese men increased five times in California and about half of that in Hawaii. But the reason surprised them: It was not the change in diet, from sushi to hamburgers and fries, that predicted the rise of heart disease. The health of the immigrants turned out to be closely related to the kind of society they had created for themselves in their new home country. The most traditional group of Japanese-Americans had a heart-attack rate as low as their fellow Japanese back home, writes McTaggart. Those who adopted the Western lifestyle increased their heart-attack incidence three to five times. If you no longer belong, you fall ill.

"Connection is the best drug in the world -- better than diet or exercise," McTaggart concludes. There's good and bad news in that conclusion. Taking good care of your health may be as easy as taking good care of your friends and family. At the same time, it's worrying that a generation of people is growing up for whom "connection" means the Internet. What used to be a family visit has become a Facebook event. Other studies show that there's a lot of isolation behind today's dominant world of digital networking.

We need families, friends and neighborhoods, we need to feel part of something bigger, to thrive. We need to belong, not online but in the real world of hugs, handshakes and pats on our backs. That's where we find our sense of purpose as well. So "Do you belong?" is an important question and the answer is not in the screen you are now looking at.