One Italian town on the island of Sardinia is home to an almost unparalleled proportion of residents who live to be over 100 years old.
It’s not a remarkably pristine or unusually beautiful place. The residents eat lots of carbs and drink lots of wine. Some smoke cigarettes. Some are cranky and pessimistic.
So psychologist and researcher Susan Pinker, who spent years studying residents of Villagrande, asserts that their long lifespans are largely due to frequent social interaction, which is facilitated — mandated, really — by the compact design of the town, which dates back to centuries before the invention of the car.
There’s a good bit of data to suggest that loneliness is strongly correlated with early mortality. Residents of Villagrande would have a tough time being lonely even if they wanted to.
And having lots of chance interactions turned out to be a stronger predictor of longevity than blood pressure, smoking or alcohol use or weight.
Ms. Pinker’s study didn’t look at mass shootings. Presumably there haven’t been very many in Villagrande. But the most recent string of mass shootings in the United States — three that killed a total of at least 34 people in less than two weeks — made me wonder if there isn’t some sort of a connection.
The thing that first drew researchers’ attention to Villagrande isn’t just its residents’ longevity, but the fact that it’s one of the only places on Earth where men are as likely as women to live 100 years or longer. In most developed countries, men live 6 to 8 years less than women on average.
That means that men in particular seem to benefit from social integration, which is of note since some recent studies have found that at least 30% and possibly up to 75% of adult men in the United States report chronic loneliness in any given year.
Men, perhaps not coincidentally, are overwhelmingly more likely than women to be mass shooters, and they’re far more heavily affected by gun violence generally, including gun suicides, as well.
There are very few places in the United States where people live in the same kind of proximity to one another as in Sardinia.
According to a 2017 survey by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 73% of Americans describe their neighborhoods as suburban or rural, and that might actually be a slight undercount given the lack of a formal definition for “suburban.”
In a typical suburb, social interaction requires a certain amount of effort. There might be a sidewalk in the neighborhood, but it’s probably not exactly bustling.
Most people commute to work and run errands by car. Even shopping — something that historically involved at least brief human interactions — is increasingly an isolated experience as cashiers are replaced by self-checkouts and online stores replace brick and mortar.
Friends and family, even if they live in the same city, are likely a car ride away. For some older people or those who can’t afford a car, visiting loved ones might be an almost unattainable luxury.
In other words, it’s easy to be lonely and socially isolated in the suburbs. In fact, it can take effort not to be.
Obviously, loneliness is not the only or probably even the most important concern when it comes to gun violence. Gun homicides overall tend to be concentrated in urban areas. But suicides, which make up the bulk of gun deaths, mostly happen in suburbs. So do mass shootings. And those who know mass shooters almost always describe them as loners who kept to themselves.
My fellow suburbanites are overwhelmingly not terrorists or otherwise violent. Still, a development pattern that so severely limits human interaction has plenty of potentially unforeseen consequences.
Maybe having nosy neighbors, busy sidewalks and less personal space isn’t everyone’s cup of espresso. But a lifestyle that facilitates more social interaction might help us be less lonely — and live longer too.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.