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Seva & Sangha: Giving & Connection are Keys to a Happy & Long Life

Seva & Sangha: Giving & Connection are Keys to a Happy & Long Life

Statistically, women live longer than men and I have a theory as to why this is true. Around the world, women do the yeoman's share of the cooking! Many places around the world, women also do that cooking together. If you've ever had the good fortune of working in a kitchen with kindred folks, you know what a curative experience it can be. If it happened to be a volunteer group effort, I tell you, this joy is like no other. There is research explaining why.

Scientists who like to quantify and qualify everything, have statistically analyzed the lifestyles and choices of the happiest and healthiest amongst us. The data is more than a little surprising.

According to the longest-running social-science study, following the lives of 200 participants for over 50 years, generativity, or our ability to give to others, is a key determinant in how happy we are. Apparently, a great capacity for giving can up your happiness factor even in the face of the most difficult life circumstances, including long term illness, divorce, death of loved ones, and financial difficulties. Simply put, when it comes to happiness, the more we give, the happier we are.

As far as the healthiest amongst us, the data is even more astonishing. Yes, you should eat healthfully, exercise, and quit smoking. But equally, and in some cases, even more importantly, you should cultivate healthy support systems and strong connections. 

One study, following the habits of 300,000 participants over the course of 7.5 years, showed that people with little social support have a mortality rate risk equal to those suffering from alcoholism. Additionally, the mortality rate risk of people lacking social support is even higher than the mortality rate risks of obese or physically inactive people.

Another study on social relationships, conducted over the course of three decades, showed that participants with healthy social relationships lived 3.7 times longer than those without. That's an effect comparable to the benefit of quitting smoking!

The sages of the ancient practices of yoga knew this. Five thousand years ago, they coined terms for these lifestyle practices being studied by social scientists today. They called them seva and sangha. Seva means selfless service and sangha refers to a community of like-minded people.

About 20 years ago, my husband and I took a trip across the country. We stopped to visit some friends of his at an ashram in Denver, Colorado. While he was off reminiscing with his buddies, I found my way into the kitchen. Someone handed me an apron, a vegetable peeler, and a bushel of carrots. I spent the next several hours of my life in a bustling, basement kitchen with a group of new friends working toward the creation of a meal to be distributed to anyone and everyone in need. I remember that day as one of the happiest days of my life.

It seems impossible that my happy place could be knee-deep in carrot peelings, surrounded by dirty dishes and good company. But it's true.

That day, while we peeled and chopped and simmered and stirred, we managed somehow, as a group, to dissolve our feelings of unease and separation. Working toward the well-being of those in need made us feel connected and focused. Our interdependence made the impossible seem possible. One or two people cooking a meal for hundreds of others is overwhelming. Ten people working together for this same goal is empowering. By the day's end, I felt buoyant and joyous as we served out a fantastic meal to a throng of appreciative people. My generativity levels were practically busting at the seams.

I can't even tell you what was on the menu that day (except that it definitely involved carrots). I can tell you that it made me hungry for more kitchen service.

Finding joy in the kitchen wasn't an entirely new experience for me. Growing up in a big, Italian family, many of my fond memories harken back to the kitchen. My grandmother was the youngest of five sisters, Jessimina, Filomena, Madalena, Amelia, and Rosina. Being in the kitchen with any one of them was lovely. If you were lucky enough to be in the kitchen with all of them at the same time, you were lucky enough to know a little bit of bliss.

Providing food for the people you love is a way of saying, "I'm here for you. I care about your well-being." Preparing that food with others is a way of saying "We're in this together. And together we are stronger than the sum of our parts."

One dreary, fall day a few years back, I roped my friend, Barbara into making stuffed shells for 35 people with me.

As we mindfully filled and lined up stuffed shell after stuffed shell, we helped one another knead out the knots in our lives. We listened and strategized and fell silent and listened and strategized and fell silent again and again, all the while working toward our goal of feeding a mass of guests. By the time we'd finished making the stuffed shells and cleaning up the kitchen, we both remarked at the overwhelming sense of clarity, resolution and gratitude we felt. To this day, if either or both of us are feeling overwhelmed by life, we set a date to make stuffed shells...lots of 'em.

So if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, call a friend, find a recipe, and get your generativity juices flowing!

By Beth Mausert

Beth Mausert is a mom, a foodie and a yogi. She teaches vinyasa flow classes in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find her on Instagram here @beth_beaton_mausert.

Practice the Yoga for Longevity program to live well and feel good. 

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