I’ve recently read two interesting articles touting the importance of community for our health and how loneliness can effect it negatively. In one article, Dr. Lissa Rankin presents the idea that eradicating loneliness from our life is a form of preventative medicine because scientific research has shown the risk factor for illness due to lack of exercise or smoking is less than that of loneliness. In another, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, explores the health benefits brought on by living in a village. If the feeling of being alone can affect our health in a negative manner, then community should have a positive effect.
Dr. Rankin presented the case of a group of Italian immigrants who settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania. Despite their love of fried meatballs, heavy and starch-laden meals, smoking, and alcohol consumption the community was incredibly healthy when compared to national averages. Researchers who examined the group came to the following conclusion, “…the tight knit community living in multi-generational homes and enjoying communal dinners and frequent festivities provided solace from the loneliness so many people feel. The love and support of others in the close knit community alleviated the stress and overwhelm many lonely people feel. Researchers posit that the stress lonely people feel, which increases cortisol levels and activates the sympathetic nervous system, raising heart rate, elevating blood pressure, incapacitating the immune system, and increasing the risk of heart disease, is responsible for much of the illness lonely people experience.”
Susan Pinker lays out the benefits of community like this: “When you are getting together face to face, there are a lot of biological phenomena: Oxytocin and neurotransmitters get released, they reduce stress and allow us to trust others. Physical contact unleashes a whole chain of events that make us and make the other person feel good, and affects our health and well-being.”
According to Pinker, research suggests that humans have never been as lonely as we currently are. Her book investigates how people who live in small villages continue to receive the benefits of community, while those living in the modern world may not. She notes that it isn’t realistic for us all to go live in small villages and is sure to point out that she doesn’t want to romanticize village living, but there are things we could stand to learn from the village model. She offers the following tips: “You can create your own village effect. Get out of your car to talk to your neighbors. Talk in person to your colleagues instead of shooting them emails. Build in face-to-face contact with friends the way you would exercise. Look for schools where the emphasis is on teacher-student interaction, not on high-tech bells and whistles.”
Through personal experience I have come up with a few more tips of my own. I had the privilege of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. In doing so I lived in a small Mayan village in the Western highlands. While it is crucial to point out, as Pinker did, that village living should not be romanticized and every town has its own share of issues, the advantages of a small community are obvious. You know people, they help you out, when you can you repay the favor. Round and round it goes.
Coming back from Guatemala was a bigger culture shock than moving there in the first place. I found myself in supermarkets checking-out with cashiers with little time for small talk as they kept the line moving. When I smiled or greeted people on the streets I felt like a crazy person, rather than a well-intentioned fellow citizen. I went from sharing afternoons with farmers who have all day to chat after their morning work, to wondering if the person across from me who keeps glancing at their cell phone is even listening to half of what I was saying.
Susan Pinker talked about creating our own village effect and here are some ways I was unknowingly able to do just that upon returning from village life (most of these were employed in Madrid). This sort of thing takes time and patience, but has the chance to greatly alter your quality of life.
- Shop in small, family-run stores or co-ops. Know your grocer. Know your butcher if possible. If you eat bread find a local baker. At the right shops or markets you may even have the pleasure of knowing the person who grows your food.
- Become a regular at a restaurant or coffee shop. This can be trickier than it sounds, some places I go all the time and nobody knows me, at others I have a great time.
- Meet your local homeless people. How many homeless people do you know by name? Everyone has their story. If you walk to work in a city there are endless opportunities to meet people you can interact every single day and make a part of your life.
- Value your current family and friends, this is the ideal place to invest the majority of your time.
- Join groups that interest you or learn a new hobby.
- Skip the ATM and meet your bank teller.
- If your around when the postman (or woman) comes get to know them. It wasn’t so long ago families knew their milkman, paperboy, and postman.
- Put your phone away while talking with others. To really receive the benefits of connection and communication we need to be PRESENT.
- While walking around town allow your intuition to guide you into new situations. This usually happens if you aren’t lost in stressful thoughts. Last week I stumbled into an Italian cafe and ended up making plans to start a language exchange with the barista. Last night I happened upon a good deal for a meal and ended up meeting a fellow English teacher.
Everyone has their own recipe for finding community. Above all be patient and gentle with yourself. The love of a community starts with self-love on the inside of each of us. When you start to love yourself you will know what your heart wants and following that can help lead to community.