Donald NorfolkWe are essentially social animals. We may have been born into a ‘me’ generation, which glorifies competition and ruthless individual struggle, but we’re rarely happier or healthier than when we join together in communal activities. It’s during these times of close collaboration that we achieve our peaks of productivity. Nothing great has ever been achieved by people working in solitary seclusion. That point was firmly made by anthropologist Richard Leakey in his book ‘People of the Lake’, which traces the evolution of the human race. ‘We are human,’ he writes, ‘because our ancestors learned to share their food and skills in an honoured network of obligation.’

We may take pride in our independence, and yet in truth we couldn’t exist for a single day without the help of others. Our morning cup of tea is made from leaves grown perhaps in India and brought to us by a long chain of packers, shippers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers. The bowl of muesli we eat for breakfast – with its mixture of nuts, raisins and oats – is likely to be the product of several countries and thousands of pairs of hands. Research from around the world supports the validity of John Donne’s oft-quoted maxim: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ Companionship benefits the whole gamut of human activity. Students learn better when they study in groups than when they work alone. In Sweden a long-term study of 17,000 adults revealed that subjects with few social contacts had a 40 per cent increased risk of suffering fatal coronary disease, even when allowance was made for differences in age, smoking habits and exercise levels. Mothers with a high level of support from family and friends have three times less risk of suffering miscarriages, still births and other serious complications than those who lead a more lonely life. Even jet lag is less troublesome when we’re in the company of friends. These benefits, sometimes referred to as ‘psycho-social assets’, are more important for the total sum of human happiness and health that wealth or power

Today our lives are so hurried and fragmented that we have fewer opportunities to maintain this all important social network. Many of the technological inventions of the last two hundred years have forced us to lead more isolated lives. We drink at home rather than spend the evening with our neighbours in the local pub. We shop in anonymous supermarkets, rather than in the neighbourhood corner shop. Housewives no longer gather together to discuss their problems and share their gossip as they draw water from the local well, or to wash their clothes in the village stream. The days are gone when women used to natter over the garden fence as they hung out their clothes to dry, now they spin-dry them indoors. In the evenings families don’t congregate around the fire to keep warm, for central heating makes it possible for parents and children to do their own thing in the privacy of their own living spaces. With the advent of computers, iPods, play stations, CDs and social websites people have less need to sing and dance with their neighbours. Family meals are far less common than they were previously, because microwave ovens and take-away meals make it simple for parents and children to organise their own eating schedules.

Somehow we need to reverse this trend. This is best be done by launching a grass roots revival movement, rather than trying to impose changes from above. This was proved by the young black activist Barrack Obama, when he started out as a community organizer in the black ghettoes of southern Chicago. He discovered then what could be achieved when people of vision and good will sunk their differences and worked together for the common good. Some years later he put this principle to work in a far wider arena. In the throes of a hard fought battle for the presidential election, he united with his opponent Senator John McCain to issue a joint call for the American people to join together in public service. At the time he described this event as ‘an important reminder that while politics is often focussed on what is divisive, there is much more that is unifying.’ After his election he immediately urged Congress to give him the financial support to launch a ‘Serve America’ campaign. This calls on the US people to give their voluntary help to serve their local communities, by mentoring children in schools, cleaning the streets of litter, providing help where needed for the elderly and disabled, and helping people adopt a healthy and purposeful life style. The government would give its support to the campaign, but the President emphasised that the work itself could only be done by stimulating individual Americans: ‘To do their part to lift up their neighbours. To realize their own true potential by hitching their wagon to something bigger than themselves.’

We’ve little chance if we operate on our own, but we’re unstoppable in we work in collaboration with our neighbours and friends. This is the prime objective of this website, to bring people together to do what we can as a team to improve the health and well-being of our fellow human beings. ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little,’ said Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century philosopher and statesman. Acting in isolation our contribution may be small, but if we all band together and enlist the help of our friends the Good News will spread quickly. Please play your part in bringing about this process of transformation. Spread amity rather than enmity. Be a carrier of conviviality, a word which literally means con vivere or ‘living together.’ This commitment will raise the common weal of human health and happiness, for as Epicurus said: ‘Of all the means to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.’

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