Loneliness is about as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the National Institute on Aging has said; and prolonged social isolation can shorten a person's lifespan by 15 years. Statistics like these suggest community is essential to a healthy lifestyle and a critical component of mental wellness and physical health. After all, we human beings are social creatures, meaning we weren't meant to live in isolation.
But what about community is fundamental to a healthy sense of wellbeing? Merriam Webster defines community as a group of people with common interests or characteristics living together in a larger society. In other words, at its core, community is about shared connection with others, and this shared human connection fulfills multiple needs....
A Sense of Purpose
A sense of purpose is essential to health and longevity. Life direction and meaning are a protective factor against addiction and mental health issues: They help a person transcend their circumstances during times of stress. (Stress is a leading contributor to mental disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as other diseases.)
In a community like a club, church, or neighborhood, people often put their gifts or skills to use in different roles and in service to the larger group. For example, most neighborhood communities have doctors and teachers who ensure its members have access to health care and education. In your friend group, you may be the go-to person when someone needs a shoulder to cry on or a place to spend the night.
Fulfilling an important role in a group establishes a sense of purpose through bettering the lives of others. Caring for and helping others can help you feel more connected to them and give your life more meaning.
Like purpose, belonging is a protective factor against the adverse effects of stress and trauma. When a person is a part of a group that loves and understands them just as they are, even a traumatic experience wields less negative power over their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
What is belonging? A study in 1992 in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing defined it as the 'experience of personal involvement in a system or environment so that persons feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment.' The same study named belonging as a 'vital mental health concept.'
Feeling you don't fit in is a lonely experience. Being part of a community can help you feel like you belong somewhere, and true belonging is fitting in without feeling pressured to change who you are. Finding a community that appreciates and embraces your unique qualities can positively impact your mental health and wellbeing in a healthy and supportive way.
Having someone to turn to for help during times of distress can make it easier to navigate stressful or difficult situations. Trying to tackle challenging issues alone can feel overwhelming, but knowing you have people who help you feel safe and supported can lead to a more positive outlook on life and may encourage you to return the favor.
With mental health issues, those struggling may withdraw from society if they feel they don't have a support system or anyone who understands what they're dealing with. Self-isolation, a common symptom of mental health disorders, is further compounded by the societal stigmas that surround these challenges. A supportive community can be a powerful antidote to this self-isolation.
Being part of a community can help people form connections with others who accept them for who they are. The resulting sense of purpose, belonging, and support can make a world of difference to someone's health and wellbeing.