I've been trying to put my finger on some of the good feelings that I get from our Wednesday night kayaking sessions, and today I think I figured it out. Kayaking itself is fun--it has a bit of danger and some fun splashing, but since I'm not particularly skilled at it just yet, I don't think all the good feelings come from that. I know that being active is one of the best ways to get elevate your mood; your body rewards you for hard physical work by flooding you with endorphins. But beyond that, I think there is a real value in getting together for a social activity, engaging with people and interacting, meeting new people. I think there is a social and personal value in that.
In 2000, Robert Putnam came out with a book called Bowling Alone which was an immediate and surprise success. In it, he described the recent American anti-social phenomenon. Americans used to be great joiners. We had civic clubs, sporting leagues, political and social clubs, book clubs, bridge clubs, a whole assembly of mini-communities that people joined and enjoyed. But over the past few decades, Americans have stopped joining and participating in these groups. Although more Americans go bowling now than ever before, bowling league participation has plummeted (hence the book's title: if we aren't bowling together, we must be bowling alone). Putman writes, "Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness."
By all accounts, the kayaking club has been a huge success. Everyone who tries it out wants to come back for more and the pool is often filled to (or beyond?) capacity with colorful kayaks. I'm not sure it relates in any direct way to "equitable tax collection" or "democratic responsiveness" but I'm going to keep doing it anyway. Let's just say I'm dong my part for a better society : ).
UPDATE---This just in: Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year!