By Dr. Joshua Penner

Health is complicated. At least that’s what they tell you at grad school when you are studying to be a health care professional. What makes us sick? Is it genetics? Environmental toxins? Stress? What’s the epidemiology of pathophysiology? Pathophysi- what?!!

In the recent best-seller Outliers, Malcom Gladwell reminds us of a powerful example that illustrates something we all know but tend to forget: that very often, happy is healthy.

In the 1950s, heart attacks were to blame for one out of every two deaths in our country. Heart disease was epidemic all over America, with the exception of a little Italian immigrant town in Pennsylvania called Roseto.

Roseto caught the attention of a nearby medical doctor who noticed that the small town was bucking the national trend when it came to heart health. Astonishingly, further investigation revealed that as far as they could tell virtually nobody under the age of 55 in the town had ever died from heart problems, nor did they show any sign of the disease upon EKG and blood testing. But hearts weren’t the only healthy thing in Roseto; there was no alcoholism, suicide, or drug addiction. There was very little crime and nobody was on welfare. They couldn’t even find a single peptic ulcer in the whole town! It seemed the good citizens of Roseto, Penn., were dying from one thing and one thing only: old age.

So what was their secret? It couldn’t be diet since a surprising 41% of calories consumed in Roseto came from fat (think pizza and biscotti). Genetics couldn’t explain the mystery either, since the health benefits of living in Roseto did not follow its citizens if they chose to move to another town. People in Roseto were not particularly physically fit either. So what was the cause of all this health and happiness?

Researchers began to notice something else about Roseto. They saw people stopping on the street to talk to each other. They saw three generations of family gathering together around a table to share a meal. They saw people greeting each other by name, and inviting each other into their homes to share food and life. In short, they saw community. And with that, they saw happiness.

So the next time you visit with someone on the sidewalk, volunteer some time at a community event, or help a stranger in need, know that you are doing your heart some good, in more ways than one.