Let me start with several quick questions and a multiple-choice answer.
- Do students work harder for teachers whom they think care about them?
- Do employees work harder for bosses who care about them?
- Do rabbits behave differently for handlers who care for them?
For which of these is the answer yes?
- Only students
- Students and employees
- One question doesn’t fit
- All the above
The correct answer is D. Of course, relationships matter—even to rabbits. In the late 1970’s scientists were doing experiments with rabbits to establish a possible link between high fat diets and heart disease. In New Zealand, Dr. Robert Nerem led a team using rabbits that were fed a high fat diet over several months. Not surprisingly, the rabbits’ cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart rates were up. The last test on the rabbits though included some unexpected results. In checking their tiny blood vessels for fatty deposits there was a wide variance among similar rabbits who had consumed the same food. The difference was dramatic—-some had 60% fewer fat deposits. Not all were destined for heart attacks or bypass surgery. How could this be?
It turns out after a complete review of their protocols, there was a young female post doc who cared for the group of rabbits which showed the much fewer fatty accumulations. What did she do? According to Kelli Harding, MD who chronicled the study, the young post doc didn’t just feed the rabbits. She talked to them, cuddled them, petted them, and frankly just loved them. The team, while not social scientists, couldn’t ignore these unexpected results. They did the study again with new controls. Same results. This began what became known as “The Rabbit Effect” and the title of Dr. Harding’s book from 2019. Love, friendship, and dignity are hidden factors behind what makes us healthy.
Since then we’ve had countless studies that affirm the positive wellness impacts of healthy relations among individuals and communities. One more quiz question to add to the evidence. Again, to Dr. Harding for the question.
- What island has more people per capita that are over a hundred years old than any in the world?
- And more importantly, why do people live longer here than anywhere in the world?
The answer to the first question is Okinawa, located south of Japan. And the why appears not to relate to their diet, exercise regimens, or daily yoga. It lies in their sense of togetherness. They take care of each other. Laugh, celebrate birthdays, and participate in “moai”—gatherings for common purpose.
For leaders, you can’t measure a business success solely by profit, a football coach totally by wins, or a school by test scores alone. These are important outcomes dramatically impacted by the quality and nature of relationships between and among people. Invest in people. Not just their training but in their lives by listening to them, demonstrating compassion, and offering human kindness. Intentionally create cultures where you don’t just say people matter but demonstrate and orchestrate practices that show that they do. Everyday, not just their birthday. And when you do, you will improve their health and —yours.