Build a “moai” for better relationships, longer life


Authored By Shelley Prevost

Residents of Okinawa, Japan, are considered an extraordinarily healthy and happy cohort, where members live well into their 100s.  Researchers wanted to know why.  One of the things they discovered is a remarkable tradition called “moai” (mo-eye). 

A moai is an informal group created by people who commit to offer emotional, social or even financial assistance to one another.   The concept originated when farmers would meet on a regular basis to discuss the best ways to plant crops and how to support one another should their crops fail. 

Today, members of these social cooperatives meet one another’s practical needs-problem-solving, planning, pooling resources and collaborating.  They also serve as extended family where social and emotional needs are met-managing a crisis, reducing stress, connecting emotionally and, at times, assuaging grief.  Essentially, a moai is a group of people who “have your back” and commit to all aspects of your well-being.

Are you in a moai?  If not, you should be.  Here’s why.

Members of a moai live longer.  Because of contagion theory, where behaviors in a group spread among group members, a moai also helps sustain a healthy lifestyle.  If one member of the moai eats well and exercises, it spreads to other members, quickly becoming the group norm.

Members of a moai are happier.  Social cohesion is the bedrock of happiness.  If we’re connected to others emotionally, then our need for love and belonging is fulfilled.  We need emotionally intimacy in order to be happy.

Members of a moai are less stressed.  Like a small team, they help you problem-solve everything from parenting dilemmas to career crises.  During a crisis, a moai disperses the stress among the members so that no one receives a blow without others pitching in to help.

Members of a moai have secure attachments.  We aren’t meant to “go it alone.”  With extended families being co-located or just far away, your moai provide a sense of emotional safety and grounding.  They are the people that you can always turn to.

Building your moai takes some time and effort, and it won’t happen overnight. Thankfully, it really only requires one thing: courage. 

We need courage to be vulnerable and open with the people in our circle.  Vulnerability is what allows us to talk about self-doubt, “shadow” emotions like jealousy and hate, and even say “I love you.”  Through vulnerability, we build trust, and we all know this is the foundation of great relationships.  Without trust, friendship is reduced to a high-maintenance acquaintance.  Inch your way toward building trust, and see what happens.  Reach out.  Invite someone to lunch.  You may have to “go first,” but the risk may very well be the thing that ignites more courage in you, creating an upward spiral of new possibilities.

We also need courage in order to confront our own self-defeating beliefs.  Within all of us is a little reel that loops an invisible yet potentially destructive script (that goes something like “You’re not good enough,” “If people really knew you, they’d never like you” or “When you change _______, you’ll be lovable”).  Fight the urge to listen to this script by calling on your courage to believe something different.  Believe that you are worthy of belonging.  This TED Talk does a great job describing this shame-vulnerability-courage dynamic, and I highly recommend watching it (set aside 18 uninterrupted minutes).

Courage is risky business.  It means you venture out into unknown territory with no promise of reciprocation.  It means you finally let go of deeply held beliefs about yourself that serve no purpose other than to protect and, ultimately, destroy you.  But courage also may be the catalyst that changes the course of relationships in your life for the better.  Just try.

Dr. Shelley Prevost is a positive psychologist. She is a partner and director of happiness at Lamp Post Group.  Follow her on Twitter @thegladlab or read her blog. The opinions expressed in this editorial belong solely to the author, not or its employees.