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).