Join a Group: It May Save Your Life!

By Wanda Urbanska, Experience Life

Too busy to get involved with the PTA, the Rotary Club or your local gardeners’ group? Consider this: If you’re not a member of a single social, civic, religious or fraternal organization, and you join one, your chance of dying in the next 12 months drops by half, according to Lewis M. Feldstein, MA, coauthor of Better Together: Restoring the American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

“If you join another organization that year,” Feldstein says, “your chances of dying drop another 25 percent.” In other words, engaging with others is as vital to your health as eating well, exercising regularly and quitting smoking.

Protective Effects

Experts have dubbed the health benefits of close community ties “The Roseto Effect,” based on a landmark study that tracked a group of Italian immigrants who settled in Roseto, Penn. People who lived in Roseto were noticeably healthier and lived longer than their peers in neighboring Bangor, despite sharing such risk factors as fatty diets, an addiction to cigarettes and minimal exercise routines. What was their secret?

Residents of Roseto lived in a tight-knit, noncompetitive community consisting of three-generation households in which everyone attended the same church services and social clubs (and even followed the same weekly dinner plans).

The health benefits weren’t genetic. As subsequent generations left Roseto and assimilated into mainstream culture, their health advantages vanished.

Next: More on the Roseto experience and benefits of community

Duplicating the Roseto experience wouldn’t be possible (or even necessarily desirable) today. But capturing that spirit of community is an essential element of the healthy, fulfilling and simple life.

Unfortunately, society seems to be moving further away from community engagement. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001), Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam, PhD, writes that, since the late 1960s, Americans have gradually abandoned organized groups and societies in favor of more cloistered lives. While “younger Americans seemed to have turned a corner after 9/11, in terms of group membership we see no major change in the earlier trends,” says Putnam. “Web 2.0 [Web-based community] is important, but we see no net gravitation back toward group activities.”

A Bounty of Benefits

It’s worth our while to fight this trend, however, because community engagement doesn’t just improve our physical health. When we build connections with others, we reap social, emotional and psychological rewards.

Indeed, when brain function is studied by advanced imaging technology, the act of helping others activates the brain’s pleasure center, asserts David C. Korten, PhD, author of When Corporations Rule the World (Berrett-Koehler, 1995). We get a rush of good feelings when we’re connected with others.

Civic and social gatherings have practical benefits, too. You may hear about a restaurant worth trying, learn about an internship tailor-made for your niece or meet a dentist who can squeeze you in that very afternoon to fix your toothache.

The right type of event can also lift your mood. If your monthly community meeting has a guest speaker on the joys of gardening or there’s an upcoming neighborhood party, it can take your mind off your daily worries and get you thinking about those much more enjoyable pursuits.

Custom Connections

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for identifying the right club, organization or society for you. So consider your interests and priorities.

What types of activities are you drawn to right now? Do you want to help affect changes in your neighborhood? Help homeless animals? See your close friends more often? Get outside more? Once you’ve narrowed your interests, you’ll have a better idea where to direct your energy.

Next, assess your time availability. If you have some room in your schedule, consider a bigger commitment: Join a civic group or the board of your neighborhood council; volunteer at a hospital, homeless shelter or the local library.

If your time is at a premium, start small. Invite a few friends over for a low-key dinner. Volunteer to staff the sales booth for the annual library book sale. Or tag along with friends to see if one of their community activities suits you.

Whatever club, organization or community activity you select, remember that the activity itself is important, but secondary. What really counts is time spent with others in a ritualized setting around a common goal or activity.

So jump in and give it a go. Before long, you will be reaping the rewards of community engagement and feeling a part of something bigger.

Wanda Urbanska is a sustainability activist and author of The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause, 2010). She is the host and producer of Simple Living, which airs nationally on public television.

Next: 4 tips for joining a group

Join the Club

Getting more community in your life starts with determining what type of community experience feels most energizing and appealing to you right now. Here’s some advice for deciding what’s right for you:

  1. Evaluate your interests and dreams. If you love to build things, you may wish to join Habitat for Humanity. If you want to socialize while improving your public speaking skills, consider signing up for Toastmasters. Love animals but your apartment’s too small or your life’s too busy? Volunteer at an animal shelter.
  2. Identify your own unmet needs. If you feel confined inside by your desk job, join a hiking group or bird-watching club, or volunteer to take urban kids out on nature hikes. You’ll get to engage with others while enjoying the great outdoors.
  3. Never choose an activity because you think you should. The last thing you want to do with your free time is take on an added obligation out of duty rather than desire. If you couldn’t give two hoots about city government, don’t join the neighborhood board!
  4. If no club exists to meet your needs, start one. Cecile Andrews, coauthor of Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness (New Society, 2009), organized a weekly neighborhood gathering in Seattle called the Think Tank. At the gatherings, neighbors discuss current events and ideas — and just hang out. Says Andrews, “The best thing you can do for yourself is spend time with others in warm, supportive conversation or activities.”

Related Link:
Why We Need Our Neighbors
7 Signs of a Healthy Community
How to Be an Effective Volunteer

77 comments

Jo SICK
Jo S.about a year ago

Thanks Megan.

Elisa F.
Elisa F.1 years ago

Thanks for Sharing :)

ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA SOMLAI2 years ago

thank you for sharing

Dale Overall

This is an excellent way of expanding friendships and creating a sense of belonging especially for those who have been isolated due to illness or other reasons. Some people become isolated and this is one way of expanding one's horizons.

Joe R.
Joe R.4 years ago

Thanks Megan.

Ellen Mccabe
Ellen m.5 years ago

Care2 and volunteering keep me motivated and my mind active!

Susan A.
Susan A.5 years ago

I think organizations are not the only way to benefit from group experience; tho I felt good when I was able to volunteer shelving books at the library. But a few friends and I meet regularly for mutual support and also pick something in the local or larger community to support as well; and that helps us all help ourselves as well as others.

Kay O.
Kay O.5 years ago

When you have friends who also become mentors, guides,
informed counselors in your line of work, or someone to
giggle with truly enhances your life. I'm grateful for the
friends I've made through following my interests and
active volunteerism. They do add a special cachet to my life.

Jewels S.
Jewels S.5 years ago

I think some people don't like groups as much and that should be fine but I felt that way a few yrs ago but found out I had low grade depression. I decided to start doing what I loved even if I went alone and things have started to change and I feel a new energy in my life. Maybe those that prefer time alone could do a group (of an activity they love) activity once a month. You don't have to become bff with everyone all at once. Baby steps work fine.

Olivia Schlosser
Past Member 5 years ago

Humans are social animals and need group interaction.