Late last month, The New York Times Magazine published a long piece by Dan Buettner with the intriguing title, The Island Where People Forget to Die. Buettner tells the story of Ikaria, a tiny Greek island that is home to 10,000 people. The island has become famous for the unusual health and longevity of its residents. A recent study discovered that its reputation is deserved; people on Ikaria are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." They're also happier and more active, both mentally and physically.
The article explores the possible reasons why and each instinctively rings true. First, a diet consisting of fresh food from the garden, fish, olive oil, beans, coffee, and wine. Second, endless, slow days filled with friends and gossip, walking and dancing, church and neighbors, naps and sex. The insights into a well-lived life are fascinating.
As the piece draws to a close, it takes a surprising turn. Buettner points out that people in a town just eight miles away live similarly, "but people on Samos tend to live no longer than average Greeks." Why is that?
The two paragraphs that followed had a profound impact on me. They explain so much about the enormous power of neighborhoods and communities. They also speak to the very heart of Uncommon in Common.
If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon nap time. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone...
Every one of these factors can be tied to longevity. That’s what the $70 billion diet industry and $20 billion health-club industry do in their efforts to persuade us that if we eat the right food or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and live longer. But these strategies rarely work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: it’s a good idea for people to do any of these healthful activities. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same. In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation. If you've ever wondered what Uncommon is or why it already means a lot to many people despite existing mostly in our imaginations, the answer lies inside those two paragraphs.
First, Buettner paints a picture of what I hope Uncommon will be, and in small ways, already is; a quiet place on the web dedicated to timeless things, the best of ourselves and our world. Each of us sharing ownership of the neighborhood and helping to shape its future.
Second, Buettner describes why Uncommon has the potential to be very different from so much of today's web. What if the site itself wasn't a neutral platform, but actively encouraged and celebrated the best in all of us? Many of us want to change how we use and experience technology, but we're standing alone against a tidal wave of harmful incentives. We're trying to live healthy lives surrounded by aisles of junk. Everywhere we turn, the excessive and obsessive is celebrated and encouraged. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same.
What if instead, Uncommon was on our side? What if there was a place online that actually pushed us away at times, encouraged our offline lives, and was built from the start to be a trampoline, not a rabbit hole?
My wish is that one day there will be 10,000 of us on this island, and we'll all live to be 100.