Moai: How the Concept of Japanese Social Support Can Help You Live Long

In 2009, explorer Dan Buettner introduced an interesting concept about longevity: the blue zones. This term refers to five countries whose populations have a longer lifespan while enjoying a good quality of life.

Buettner investigated the factors that these places shared—things that might have allowed these people to thrive even in their eighties or nineties. He started with the obvious: a diet mostly based on plants, natural movements or exercise, and a more stress-free lifestyle.

Then there are social relationships perfectly exhibited by the Okinawans of Japan.

The Concept of Moai

Okinawa is an island in Japan about 600 miles away from the country’s capital, Tokyo. To get here, one must take a plane ride for two to three and a half hours, depending on which airport they are from.

The distance to the city center might have helped Okinawa keep its traditions, healthy diet, clean air, and less stressful lives. But as Buettner discovered, the people here are also famous for practicing the culture of moai.

“Moai” is a Japanese word for “meeting with a common purpose.” When expanded, it refers to a lifelong social support system a person gains in the village.

The idea actually began when people in the villages would pool their resources to complete public projects. Then, when some needed money for whatever purpose, such as buying land, they could tap into the local money for assistance.

Later, it expanded to become social networks. These friends, who are often in groups of five or more, meet regularly, perhaps every day or a few times a week.

The goal doesn’t have to be lofty or significant. It can be as simple as chatting about their day, gossiping about their neighbors, or drinking tea. They may also play card games, walk outdoors, or cook food.

However, when times get rough, the same individuals will be there to help meet the needs of the other. These may range from spiritual to financial and emotional support.

Usually, moais start young, even before turning 10, and might have been grouped by their families or elders. However, they may also form their own, which means that an Okinawan can have more than one moai.

Moai

How the Principle of Moai Translates to Longevity

Although moai is closely associated with the Okinawans, it is a concept that anyone can adopt, particularly older adults. One of the easiest ways is to consider senior living in retirement homes and communities.

Here, they can find shared-age friends who will have similar interests as theirs. Many facilities also create various activities to encourage the residents to meet, chat, and be friends.

For the curious, though, how can moai help improve a person’s longevity? The answer lies in two factors: purpose and social relationships.

In a 2014 study by the Association for Psychological Science, having a sense of purpose may help someone live longer, regardless of age. To come up with this conclusion, the researchers studied over 6,000 people and their self-reported life purpose.

After 14 years of follow-up, using the available data, around 500 participants died. Among those who did, a significant percentage reported fewer positive relationships and lower life purpose. In the meantime, a higher sense of purpose cut the mortality risk across different ages.

Meanwhile, a 2018 study revealed that older adults with moderate to high purpose in life exhibited higher health literacy, good health, resilience, and faith dependency.

For the Okinawans, practicing moai means honoring their social obligation, and being responsible for someone else can give them a sense of direction or purpose. It may encourage them to stay healthy and be in a better mental state to be more capable of helping when someone needs it.

On the other hand, in her Ted Talk, Susan Pinker stressed that the secret to longevity might be social relationships using another member of the Blue Zone, Sardinia, as an example.

According to her, social integration, which includes face-to-face interactions, could help strengthen the immune system, release feel-good hormones, and improve the condition of the brain. All these can promote longevity.

That’s not all, however. Older adults are prone to social isolation, loneliness, and depression. These experiences have long been associated with poor physical and mental health outcomes. In fact, a 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that loneliness among this group could be a strong predictor for functional decline.

In the end, moai stresses one of the universal laws: humans are social creatures, which means we need others to help us thrive.

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