We see each other every day. In line at the grocery store, across the counter of the coffee shop, rubbing shoulders on the subway we share our space. But even in cities where we spend time huddled in close contact, and certainly is sprawling suburbs, we seem to be communicating less, and feeling, now more than ever, disconnected. We are social animals. Our bonds with those around us—our community, our tribe, our village—once aided our survival, and in part account for our individual existence in the here and now.
Socially networked or emotionally bankrupt?
Psychologist Matthew Lieberman, in his book Social, says the human need for connection is even more fundamental than our need for food and shelter. And we're reaching out for it. Americans are spending a total of 520 billion minutes a day online. While much of that time is spent on social media, liking, sharing, and messaging, we're lonelier than we've ever been. In their book, Networked, Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet Project and sociologist Barry Wellman explain that "internet encounters contain less social information and communication and might cause relationships to atrophy." In fact, other research found an inverse relationship between social media engagement and real world relationships; those with the most diverse online networks knew fewer of their neighbors and were less integrated into their local communities than those who rarely used social media. A study in the U.K. found that a third of the nation did not feel a connection to community at all.
All of this is a significant problem when you consider the health consequences loneliness can wreak. One study published by a Yale epidemiologist found that people who were not connected to others were three times as likely to die than their more supported neighbors. Loneliness dangerously increases cortisol levels and blood pressure in women and men of all ages. It's even been shown to exacerbate the rate of tumor growth—according to a UCLA study, social contact switches on and off genes that control the immune system's response to cancer and tumor growth in particular.
Our physiology demands contact. Oxytocin released through touch eases our daily stressors. It calms us when we're afraid. It lessens our perception of pain and helps our wounds heal more quickly. And in the absence of belonging we wither. The network we need isn't made up of significant others and soul sisters exclusively, it's full of weak ties, those acquaintances outside our inner circles who scientists say are the real stanchions of community. But in an increasingly frenetic world, full of deadlines and distractions, how do we invest in creating stronger connections? One thing is clear, we need to.
How to spot opportunities for community
The way points of contact become community is, of course, through repetition over time. Often community starts by befriending one individual, who then exposes you to a larger network, welcoming you into a tribe bound by shared goals or experiences. Here are four instances to look for. They're opportunities to find, create, or build community:
- Points of exchange: These interactions are transactional, like when you're buying or selling something, or when you're simply saying hello. If it feels routine, it is: Whether selling is part of your job, or your morning includes a coffee run, we all have several points of exchange throughout the day—and consequently, several opportunities to foster community. Ideally, these types of transactions are repeated with the same people over time. So yes, you’re getting something more than your coffee when you become a “regular," you're building a neighborhood-based community.
- Shared goals: Whether you’re boarding a plane to Paris, taking the same yoga class every week, or attending the same work events or conferences every year, you’re bound to cross paths with people who share your motivations and goals. These are people you may not spend a great deal of time with, but have an easy time relating to—that connection is validated by research. Sharing attention in time and space with another is shown to bring people closer together. Studies have also demonstrated that people who physically do the same motion together, like a workout class, walking together—or any form of non-verbal mimicry—makes them feel emotionally closer and more bonded. While this community isn't as immediate as your neighborhood, sharing a common goal is an incredible bonding agent.
- Giving: Hosting meals or parties, holding space for a friend going through a rough time, philanthropy, and random acts of kindness are great examples of selfless giving—what we think of as intentional autonomous acts done with no expectation of reciprocation. Giving often elevates our own mood, in turn priming us for more communal experiences. Even though it appears that helping others often comes at the expense of one's own wellbeing, and evolutionarily makes little sense especially in the animal kingdom, studies on rodents show that doing so promotes feelings of pleasure. This stake in others is called the "camaraderie effect," and it extends into the human experience, too.
- Receiving: Giving and receiving are on the same plane, but at different polarities. Receiving is when someone has given you something with no strings attached. Whether it's a tangible gift or an invitation to a dinner a party, you can choose to grow it into a more meaningful and communal experience by expressing gratitude and appreciation to the giver.
Small steps toward building your community
- Take our your headphones and say hello to the people on your path. Extending a small, unconditional gesture makes your community a more welcoming place.
- Invest in your weak ties. Pay a compliment to the woman with the great handstand in yoga. Ask your grocer if he wouldn't mind sharing his favorite recipe. Then, let your relationships, and not your route home, determine where you stop and conduct your business. Building those interactions into relationships may imbue your errands with a new sense of fulfillment. Some researchers argue that "weak ties" are largely responsible for our largest networking opportunities, like hearing about a new job, or getting introduced to a soulmate.
- Don't turn away from people with different viewpoints. Find gentle ways to engage with them honestly. Avoid saying the easy thing, what you think will make your conversation flow smoothly. You might be able to test your beliefs and grow.
- Make your home a safe space and invite new people into it. That new girl in your office? Invite her over for dinner. Friends, old and new? Break out the board games. Your home can function as a community incubator if you put it to use.
- Designate spaces in your town for gathering. Invite your neighbors to a coffee shop for a book club. Choose a weekly time to hang out in a local park to discuss neighborhood issues or hold an impromptu meditation.
- Organize a group run. Exercise releases those good endorphins, which further bond you to those around you.
- Join a mosque, synagogue, church, atheist meet-up, or any group that share your spiritual perspectives.
- Actively reach out to vulnerable members of your society. Those who are elderly, ill, or marginalized may not seek the connection they crave. Search them out and find out how you can help them. Offer to drop of groceries, read them a book, or accompany them where they go.
The piece was co-written by mbg's Senior Wellness Editor Lindsay Kellner.