Feeling Lonely? Maybe you need a ‘Moai’
No, not the giant stone statues on Easter Island. A ‘Moai’ is also the name used in Okinawa, Japan for a small group of local friends with shared values and interests that you connect with regularly. The aim of a Moai is to enjoy each other’s company and support each other emotionally over the long term.
Happiness is associated with positive health outcomes. And one of the most (currently underrated) foundations of happiness is social connection and support.
Moai = Mateship
‘Mateship’ used to be highly prized in Australian culture. But it feels like hard yakka, work success and individualism have taken over as kings. Maybe it’s time we take a leaf out of the Okinawan’s book and go back to prioritising time with our mates. Together we can solve this epidemic of loneliness.
Loneliness kills more than cancer
Working from home may have been a necessary pivot during the pandemic, but ongoing WFH is increasing our disconnection in an already disconnected culture.
Experts say that the optimum number of days to work from home is 2-2.5 days a week. We need to connect with colleagues for social interaction and support if we are to maintain our mental health.
Loneliness has a greater impact on negative health outcomes than obesity, poor dietary choices, booze and lack of exercise. And it’s ranked equal with smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Gadzooks!
Loneliness also messes with your sleep, increases cortisol, blood pressure and depression (read how here).
Online connection is great, but connection in real life is so much better. (I’ve already written about this here.)
So, working on decreasing your loneliness should be a high priority if you want good health and longevity.
Want to live a longer and happier life? Look to the Blue Zones
I first learned about “Moai” when reading about the Blue Zones research. The Blue Zones are 5 places in the world where people naturally live to be a hundred and are the healthiest: Sardinia, Nicoya, Ikaria, Loma Linda and Okinawa in Japan.
Researchers are interested in why and how these people are so healthy and enjoy such longevity. They’ve narrowed it down to diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices like prioritising social interaction.
What is a Moai?
On the island of Okinawa, people choose to congregate in Moai. Moai are small groups of about 5-7 local friends with shared values and interests. They catch up regularly for walks, meals and support each other socially and emotionally.
The number of members is important. Firstly, if there are 8 or more people in a group, they will split into sub-groups. Secondly, you only need 5 close friendships for optimum mental health.
Different types of Moai
Don’t think that Moai has to be just about walking or cooking. You can make a Moai about whatever you want:
Do you remember the days when we used to pile over to a friend’s house to watch the latest X-Files episode each week? That’s a Moai.
Incidentally, Monica, Chandler, Joey, Rachel and Phoebe (Friends) were a wonderful 20-something Moai. They hung out regularly at Central Perk and supported each other through relationship and job crises.
My cousin goes to a monthly craft catchup with some beautiful ladies in Perth and I was lucky enough to be invited along one weekend. Sure, there was a lot of craft going on, but it was about so much more than that. Conversations ranged from weddings to births to supporting someone through ill-health. This gathering was the essence of a Moai.
Say you’re a middle-aged Australian male and walking with your mates or cooking isn’t your thing, make your Moai about whatever you want: Boxing? Soccer? Whiskey tasting? It’s about sharing core values and interests.
Moai could be your informal group therapy
In a traditional Okinawan Moai, regardless of the activity, members have the right to talk to other members about relationship issues, work problems or anything they are struggling with. The other members listen and offer support and advice.
For 5 years I ran a mindful movement class that morphed into a therapy group. The same 5-6 people came religiously for years. Even after the official group disbanded, they still connect online, meet up and support each other.
They met every fortnight, they supported each other emotionally through life’s trials and transitions and they continue to do so now.
When I reflect on it, this really was the epitome of a Moai. It was the support and acceptance that they got from each other that worked the magic.
Benefits of Moai
Belonging – Moai are like mini tribes that you choose to belong to. We all want to belong.
Connection in real life
Finding friends with shared interests or values.
How to make a Moai
Making a Moai is not as difficult as you might think, even if you’re an introvert – it might take 15 seconds of courage to ask a friend if they are interested and a bit of effort to get off the sofa each week. A Moai is not a formal group like Toastmasters say, but it does have a sense of formality to it. Here’s what to do:
Find 5-7 local people and invite them to join a Moai
It could be your friends, or friends of a friend. It could be people you know from a regular exercise class. Perhaps you mention this idea to one friend and it snowballs from there. Members are by invitation only.
Keeping the number below 8 stops sub-groups from forming. It’s all about group dynamics.
(If you don’t know 5-7 people yet, see below for some ideas… I recognise that is a dream for most of us, and not always easy).
Although Moai are ideally an in-person activity, I know many people who have strong connections online, particularly in gaming circles. So maybe your Moai is mostly online if that’s what floats your boat.
Choose your Moai members wisely
Make sure that they are friends that make you feel happier simply by being around them, that they are supportive and share your values.
In a traditional Moai, the members meet weekly. Obviously, we all have our commitments – parenting, shift work etc – so weekly might not work for you at first. Decide on the frequency (preferably weekly or fortnightly but no more than monthly) and work out a regular time and that works for you all.
Make social connection a high priority in your life.
Commit to at least a 3-month trial
It might feel a bit strange at first. After all we are so used to spending time on our own. You are literally growing a new socio-emotional muscle here so don’t worry, you’ll grow into it.
It may not work for some people, in which case you’ll loose them along the way. But when that happens, ask group members for suggestions for replacements. Again, keeping to the maximum number of 7 participants.
What if you really don’t know anyone?
In an ideal world we’d all know 5-7 local people, but with this growing social isolation that’s not always the case.
Please know that even those in relationships and some of the most extroverted people are lonely. The way I see it this loneliness is not a reflection on you as a person, but more of a reflection on the disintegration of community. So here are some ideas for starting out slowly and building those networks.
Find existing group activities you’re interested in and see if there are people you gel with:
- Exercise classes
- Meetup groups
- Men’s Shed
- Sporting clubs
- Work social clubs
- Pub choir
- Special interest groups e.g. the Beagle Club
Attend workshops in things you’re interested in e.g. intensive journalling or creative writing
Volunteer e.g. SES, a community group or a religious organisation you’re into.
Do things you enjoy and see if there are people there that you’d like to hang out with more.
(If you have other ideas to add to this list I’d love to hear them – please message me at email@example.com)
Your Moai may not last forever, but the bonds remain
Ideally a Moai is about long-term connection, but people move, lives change, and sadly people pass on. You may even decide that your Moai is not for you. Sometimes a Moai has a time limit.
I have had several Moai in my personal life. One of them has naturally disintegrated as a key member moved interstate. However, in those 10 years that we did meet, we really supported each other and I know, without reservation, that they would band together if I needed them.
I now have a new Moai forming and I’m excited about the connection and friendship to come.
More about the Blue Zones
I am eternally grateful to Dan Buettner and his colleagues researching the Blue Zones. You can find out more about them here:
Dan has also written some great books which you can find at all good retailers including:
I hope this article helped you and that you find a Moai of your own.