Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 28, 2019
In 1978, scientists conducted a study exploring the link between high cholesterol and heart health using rabbits as the test subjects. What they found is that while the two groups of rabbits ate the same foods, one group had markedly better results. Why? It turned out that one of the lab researchers not only fed her rabbits, she petted them. The lead scientist, Dr. Robert Nerem, said, “She couldn’t help herself, it was just the way she was.”
After some more scientific work, the conclusion was inescapable. “Positive relationships lower stress, cortisol, inflammation and blood pressure.” Well, what do you know, a hug a day keeps the doctor away. Who needs apples? And now there is a new book, “The Rabbit Effect” by Dr. Kelli Harding, which expands on the original study and reinforces the original conclusion.
She says, “The biggest contributor to our health is our relationships.” She was surprised to find that patients who should have been on death’s door based on their lab results, were doing just fine, and the converse was that some people who felt lousy and complained of pain had lab results that looked good. The difference was their interpersonal relationships. Happy people with supportive networks lived longer and healthier lives.
This outcome, while to some extent obvious, has some interesting implications on health care in America. Now I am a little bit tongue-in-cheek here, but what Harding is suggesting is that instead of spending billions of dollars on drug discovery, if we spent just some millions on being nicer to each other, we might find positive outcomes that didn’t cost as much. Tell that to the insurance companies and to big pharma, and they might just take steps to look this lady up. The giant medical/industrial/technology complex has an economic interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are, and you can be sure that a litter of rabbits is not going to get in the way of their stock price.
“The science of epigenetics and telomere research show that loving actions actually change physiology,” Harding says. Low-cost interventions (like a hug or a kind word or a smile) that are community-based “can have huge impacts on people’s health down the road.” She says that instead of being tough on crime, we should be gentle on new moms and families. What is equally interesting is that the original rabbit study was duplicated a year later with the same findings. It was then published in Science, a prestigious journal — where it sat on the shelf. Nobody did nothing. It was simply hiding in plain sight. Wow.
Now there are a couple of takeaways. One, for sure, is that if you treat your employees with empathy and an occasional pat on the back and a small bonus in December, they might both live longer and be more effective in their work. Simply put, loneliness is not good for our health. People and rabbits like to be stroked. Holistic health depends on connections within the community.
Harding points out in her study that “having a life purpose and feeling optimistic can prolong your telomeres,” which it seems is a very good thing. To live longer, you need to avoid the “microagressions,” the daily unfairness of life, what she calls death by a thousand cuts, (think traffic, cutting in line, renewing your license at DMV, etc.) She jokes that companies could throw out their human resource manuals and rewrite them with one page — “Just be kind.”
Remember sometimes the answer to a puzzle is sitting right in front of us, and we don’t see it. The rabbit study was ignored for 30-plus years. Why is it so hard to see an innovative solution? That sentence has two sharp prongs for the entrepreneur. One is that the key to starting a company is exactly finding that new solution to a hard problem, and the other is getting someone to look at it and care. Our entrepreneur needs to remember the entrenched forces and be aware that their incentive is to do nothing, to change nothing and to keep doing it the way it was always done. And that’s the way it is going to stay — until you bring in some rabbits.
Rule No. 633
“What’s up doc?”
— Bugs Bunny