The other day I walked across the street and knocked on the door of a neighbor to ask her over for a friendly game of ping-pong. Her partner had died recently after a long battle with cancer and I thought she might like the company. It was a small act of kindness and community.
It also was something that, embarrassingly, I had to prod myself to do. It’s so easy these days to keep to ourselves – busy with work and family and continually entertained by our devices. So much so, that we often forget we live in neighborhoods amongst others. None of us are the better for it.
For decades, sociologists have been concerned about the decline of community and, more recently, the epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. (See previous blog below.)
Ask yourself: Do you go to PTA meetings or neighborhood block parties? Are you part of a civic organization or maybe a book club? Do you vote?
If you answered “no” to any of those questions you’re like many of us who no longer have the inclination to be part of our communities. And that’s a problem.
Years ago, Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam wrote a now classic book called “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities.” In it Putnam chronicled waning participation in organizations such as Elks Lodges, churches and bowling leagues as well as diminishing voter turnout. The decline began trending downward after World War II and has continued as we’ve become a more mobile and, perhaps, a more personally distant culture.
Today, nearly a third of people say they don’t interact with their neighbors, down from fewer than a quarter four decades ago. Meanwhile, societal distrust and divisiveness have increased. Two years ago, the U.S. Congress held hearings on the state of so-called “social capital” or the health of relationships within American communities to launch research into the causes of the country’s fraying social fabric. Shrinking communities not only have profound effects on individuals, but they also have ramifications for how well government and society function.
Above all else, though, lack of community matters because as human beings we desperately need each other to be mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.
Attending a meeting to find out what’s happening in your neighborhood, volunteering at your local school or even taking a mindfulness class fosters social connection that unifies us and forms the foundation of our well-being.
Researchers from Brigham Young University, for example, analyzed 150 studies that tracked social support and health outcomes among 300,000 people. After combing through the data, they concluded that people with strong social ties had a 50% greater chance of survival than those who lacked vibrant social networks.
Having robust social connections is as beneficial for long-term survival as quitting a 15-cigarette a day smoking habit, researchers concluded.
Our desire to belong is, in fact, primal. There’s a reason why we evolved in tight-knit tribal communities. They helped us survive and propagate. They also brought us joy. And, yet, today the need for belonging often gets short shrift as we battle long commutes, work hard and spend more of our leisure time alone and online.
One of the striking things I’ve witnessed teaching mindfulness over the years is the sense of community that forms in my classes. Even in silence, there is connection and belonging. Discussions after periods of practice create bonds among group members that lead to personal insights and friendship. At the end of a class series, a common lament from students is how much they’ll miss being a part of the group.
Mindfulness is fairly integral to creating community – not just in a class setting, but in daily life, too. We can use the awareness we develop through mindfulness practice, for example, to notice just how robust our social connections are and whether or not they need to be strengthened. Mindfulness also invites us to drop distractions and bring our full attention to those we do connect with, deepening the ties that bind us together and creating a stronger web of social support.
While creating community takes a bit of time and intention, it might be easier to do than you think. You could ask a neighbor to go for a walk. You could throw a pot luck or organize a book club. You could go to a PTA meeting and give yourself permission to leave early if you’re too tired after a long day at work. By doing so, you might find a few new friends to share in your life. More than that, you might realize that you’re not alone and that you belong.
On My Mind
How do you define success? The answer to that question is as unique and diverse as every individual living on the planet is. Every so often, though, it’s worth bringing some mindfulness to your definition of success. How much of your answer is fully yours? How much is influenced by your family, your peers, your culture? To prompt a reflection, read the thought-provoking quote below from environmentalist and Oberlin College professor David Orr.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
We’re all connected as the saying goes. And, yet, it’s often difficult to get our minds around such a universal truth until we see it demonstrated. Click on the link below to watch a enlightening video entitled: “How Wolves Heal Rivers.” Next time, when you doubt that we’re all part of each other’s existence imagine you hear a wolf howling.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q