By Jon Spayde, Experience Life
A strong sense of community adds real value to our lives. It not only helps us feel more connected to the world around us, it also makes a measurable difference in our happiness — and our health.
We Americans love our independence — sometimes to the point of dangerous isolation. In a now-classic study of 6,928 adults living in Alameda County, Calif., conducted by Harvard researcher Lisa Berkman, PhD, and University of California, Berkeley, researcher S. Leonard Syme, PhD., people with few social ties were two to three times more likely to die of all causes than people with wider and closer relationships.
Even after controlling for age and health practices, including exercise, smoking, drinking and the use of medical services, Berkman and Syme’s study, first published in 1979, found that the basic relationship between isolation and mortality persisted. What’s more, the study showed that a dearth of social support could increase the likelihood of depression and cognitive decline in older people.
In his book Social Intelligence: The Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2006), Harvard PhD and longtime New York Times brain-and-behavioral-science reporter Daniel Goleman outlines the neuroscientific evidence that we are “wired to connect.” Goleman cites the research of Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, who exposed study volunteers to the virus that causes the common cold and then subjected them to a five-day quarantine in which they were housed individually, but allowed to interact with one another from at least three feet apart. “Compared to those with a rich web of social connections, those with the fewest close relationships were 4.2 times more likely to come down with the cold, making loneliness riskier than smoking,” Goleman notes.
“Vibrant social connections boost our good moods and limit our negative ones, suppressing cortisol and enhancing immune function under stress,” he explains. “Relationships themselves seem to protect us from the risk of exposure to the very cold virus they pose.”
Relating in helpful ways, in particular, seems to do us a world of good. A variety of studies have shown that regular face-to-face helpfulness, including acts of volunteerism and neighborly goodwill, can contribute significantly to physical health and happiness — a natural, endorphin-fueled phenomenon known as a “helper’s high.”
Communities give us all kinds of opportunities to be friendly and helpful, of course, from lending a neighbor a cup of milk to supporting a local church project or providing an elderly acquaintance a caring ear. And if the collected research on helping is accurate, the value we get from offering such small acts of daily kindness would be hard to overrate.
The forces that pull us together are strong. But in today’s overly busy, materialistic and stretched-thin world, so are the forces that pull us apart.
In Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Berrett-Koehler, 2005), John de Graaf and his colleagues describe the toxic cycle of overwork, overspending and debt that causes many Americans to disconnect from cooperative, community-based activities of all kinds — and to suffer as a result.
“We may wish we could look outside ourselves,” they write, “but we’re just too busy, too uncertain where to start, or too tired.” And so we stay focused on our own problems and our own little worlds.
The trouble is, the more we isolate, the less we acknowledge that we need anything from others. And the less we tend to care or notice what others might need from us.
Psychologist Tim Kasser, PhD, thinks that improving our personal well-being will require us to rethink the materialistic values and habits that currently isolate us from one another. In The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press, 2002), he lays out convincing research suggesting that “materialistic values are associated with making more antisocial and self-centered decisions” and that they “conflict with concern for making the world a better place, and the desire to contribute to equality, justice, and other aspects of civil society.”
Kasser’s work concurs with that of a large body of psychologists who are convinced that “good interpersonal relationships and involvement in one’s community form two cornerstones of personal well-being.” And he illuminates the great variety of ways that “we permit materialistic values to undermine much of what could be the very best about our communities.”
Fortunately, some of the most powerful remedies for this situation lie just beyond our own front door. Of course, for many of us to be interested in treading beyond our own threshold, we need to have somewhere appealing to go.
“You can immediately identify really good communities by how people use the public spaces — the streets, the sidewalks,” says Fred Kent, founder and president of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining strong communities. “Look at how they walk, where they stop, whom they’re with. It’s a subtle thing. There’s a sense of comfort. Good places breed wonderful opportunities for affection.”
Community — like most worthwhile things — is not a quick fix or an easy path. Community may begin with well-designed parks or pleasant cafes, but it establishes itself in the world only when it roots itself in our hearts as a transformation of our attitudes — a willingness to confront fear and a willingness to give time, attention and love in large measure to people outside our immediate circle.
This is good news. We really don’t have to wait for our streets to be narrowed, speed bumps to be built or the perfect coffee shop to open to begin the soul-enlarging work of community. We need only to make the change in ourselves — and then, to reach out.
It’s no accident that on a popular poster titled “How to Build Community,” designed by the Syracuse Cultural Workers collective in New York, the hints go well beyond issues of urban planning, neighborhood design and traffic policy. “Play together,” suggest the Cultural Workers. “Ask for help when you need it. Seek to understand. Learn from new and uncomfortable angles. Honor elders.” And my favorite: “Fix it even if you didn’t break it.”
Jon Spayde is a writer and editor in St. Paul, Minn. His is the author of How to Believe (Random House, 2007).