Well, you can forget about the yogurt. The Russians have released their latest report on the secret of long life and it has nothing to do with that sort of culture at all.
Their study found that the four basic ingredients for ripe old age are: work, marriage, children and a lot of talking. The person they profile remains literally "alive" as part of an intricate web of human contacts.
This isn't exclusively a Russian discovery. Working from the opposite point of view - a diagnosis of death and disease - Dr. James Lynch published a book this summer on the medical effects of loneliness. After labeling it somewhat melodramatically "The Broken Heart," he reports that "If we do not live together, we will die - prematurely - alone."
It all sounds a bit like a Woody Allen joke directed at the lonely. Not only are you going to be over much too soon.
Now all this recent talk about loneliness and health may be a good antidote to the Live-Alone-and-Love-It rash of self-help books, but no one seems to have a cure for loneliness, let alone an immunization plan.
It seems to me, rather, that in one way or another we live in a society that continues to choose loneliness. In fact, as Philip Slater wrote a few years ago, we may pursue it.
Of course, we don't always call it loneliness. We label it independence, freedom, mobility, privacy. In their names, we move constantly, buy houses with our own half acres, put our children in their own rooms, choose anonymous supermarkets over corner stores, and cherish "private spaces" over community.
We protect the rights of "individuals" and do not interfere with each other.
The only exception to the rule against intrusion (which is also intimacy) is in love and mating. But even that connection is a limited one. When our marriages end - as they all do - in death or divorce, we're alone again.
Only the most callous would suggest that the 12 million widows and one million widowers have chosen loneliness. Still, to one degree or another, most of the widowed who are financially able to live alone chose that life rather than one with children, relatives, roommates or others.
The divorced are more conscious of having chosen to live alone - not as a free choice, nor a first choice, but as an alternative to the disastrous togetherness they've known. They, too, may often hope for a re-mating. But for a time they choose "peace" over "compromise" and "loneliness" over "friction."
Now I am aware that being alone isn't necessarily being lonely, and that one can be "lonely in a crowd" and lonely in a marriage. I can trip over these definitions as quickly as anyone.
There are people who live as mates leaving each other room to breathe and to respect their differences. There are people who live alone with a web of friends and caring associations that provide them with warmth and support.
On the whole, however, loneliness is to living alone as conflict is to living together. It's the bad news, the unhappy side effect that comes to one degree or another out of the basic situation.
This is a society in which people in the name of independence often choose aloneness with its occasional attacks of loneliness over togetherness with its conflicts and its infringement on the "individual." They choose the freedom to whatever they want to do by themselves without interference. And that is fine, unless or course, what they want to do is to be with someone else.
In that sense, they choose loneliness. For better? For worse? I know one thing. Among older people you hear less about independence and more about loneliness.
Now Dr. Lynch says that loneliness is had for your health. The Russians say that human connections will lengthen your life. But they have no cure for something that we seem to choose. We are addicted to this hazard. We pick it up at the counters of our culture, just like a package of cigarettes.