What Is the Roseto Effect? How Close-Knit Communities Thrive

Not too long ago, an important study took place in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania. The results are especially potent today, suggesting that relief for stress comes in a surprisingly straightforward and perhaps wildly effective form. The only problem is that a lot of the institutions that sponsored such a healthy and long lifespan are going away, if not gone entirely.

Let’s start from the beginning. In the 1950s and 60s, Roseto had established itself as a small dot along the mid-Atlantic, a working-class town of primarily Italian-Americans. The town was named after Roseto Valfortore, a place in Italy where the original inhabitants came from (in fact, the vast majority remain descendants of the original inhabitants). The lifestyle of the community was not markedly different from the rest of the country, save for a few vital European components the traveled across the Atlantic.

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Rosetans loved pasta and wine. They feasted on sausages and smoked the occasional cigar. But more importantly, they loved each other and took every opportunity to engage as a community. The local clubs, organizations, potlucks, and more were routinely well-attended. Several generations of a single family often lived together under the same roof.

The result? Nobody worried about anything. Stress levels were so low they were practically off the charts (in a good way) and lifespans reflected the unique comfort level. It’s been reported that the crime rate in Roseto was virtually nonexistent. After enough years of just about everybody in Roseto avoiding heart disease and stress-related deaths, some researchers showed up.

We live in a time where neighborhood gatherings, clubs, and social organizations still exist but are not as popular as they once were. Pandemics aside, we tend to lock ourselves in more than we reach out to those across the street, opting for Netflix over backyard bingo.

Death certificates from the mid-1950s and 1960s were examined by researchers from state and federal levels. The results were remarkable, standing way out when compared to lifespans and health conditions of those in neighboring towns. Across the board, Rosetans were somewhere around half as likely to be stricken with things like heart attacks, hypertension, and strokes.

Keep in mind that this is not some gated luxury community of ultra-wealthy people. Roseto is a small town along the Slate Belt, with a mainly lower to middle-class makeup. About the only thing bubble-like here is the Italian lifestyle, which yields less stress and what many have dubbed the closest thing to a real fountain of youth there is.

We live in a time where neighborhood gatherings, clubs, and social organizations still exist but are not as popular as they once were. Pandemics aside, we tend to lock ourselves in more than we reach out to those across the street, opting for Netflix over backyard bingo. And that might just be a key factor in our higher rates of hypertension, strokes, and heart attacks.

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Stress is such a popular term that we tend to take it for granted. Yet, it’s very real and given what’s unfolding with COVID-19, it will only grow in severity. But the importance of the Roseto lifestyle doesn’t just apply to stress-riddled times of crisis. It applies to everything from the gig hustle to the shrinking middle class.

The economy hasn’t really been the same since 2008. Recessions or slow growth are the norm and single career paths have become fractured into avenues with more turns and role changes than ever. Once sturdy professions like journalism have been reduced to exhausting freelance endeavors, with relentless chasing and rarely much security. And the more specialized vocations, by and large, have been gobbled up by the big boxes.

Stress is such a popular term that we tend to take it for granted. But the importance of the Roseto lifestyle doesn’t just apply to stress-riddled times of crisis. It applies to everything from the gig hustle to the shrinking middle class.

This means it’s tougher to live on your own, especially in absurdly expensive cities like San Francisco and New York. The thought of living at home into your 20s and early 30s is usually met with embarrassment in this country but perhaps it shouldn’t be. If nothing else, there could be health benefits, assuming you and your family get along.

What’s interesting is that Rosetans of the mid-20th century flourished out of essentially being non-American. It wasn’t a direct protest, but instead of fencing off yards and gluing your family of 2.2 to the radio or television (the American way), this community shared in religious gatherings, had frequent festivities, and never let a soul walk by without a proper hello. They worked extremely hard in slate quarries by day and caught up as a group by night, with Chianti for company.

Roseto gives me hope. Yes, we’re living in what Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author Nicholas Kristof calls the great social depression. Community-oriented traditions aren’t what they used to be. Small towns, especially, are alienated affairs, with poor education that leads to economic disparity, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc. But now that we know there are genuine mental and physical benefits to the social fabric, why not revive it? And what better time than now (now as in after the COVID-19 dust settles), when technology has fooled us into thinking the world is small but in reality, we’ve never been more independent of one another?

After a couple of months in quarantine, mandated or not, we’re going to be ravenous for community. There may be a real opportunity to learn from Roseto circa 1957 and make our neighbors like family. Few towns can replicate the massive family trees rooted in one specific place, but we can all mimic the engagement, sense of belonging, and resulting feeling of comfort that the Pennsylvania town of some 1,600 has become famous for.

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