Experience Life Magazine

Community Matters

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.

Across an intersection in a leafy neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., two coffee shops face off like gunslingers in a spaghetti Western. One bears the suave logo of a national chain. Inside, sleek espresso makers are on sale, along with half-caf soy lattes and gooey muffins. Patrons tap on laptops and talk quietly on their cell phones.

On the other side of the street, a converted gas station painted brown, yellow and green sports a big, bold sign: Brewberry’s Neighborhood Coffee Shop. Inside, there’s a bulletin board overgrown with notices for local concerts, symposia at a nearby college, sofas for sale, lost pets. On another wall, the Brew Babies: row upon row of snapshots of patrons’ kids. People hail each other across the room. They introduce friends to other friends. The lively chatter makes it something of a challenge to concentrate on your BlackBerry.

“I didn’t understand how important the shop was to my customers until a national-chain competitor came along in 2004,” says Jan Nelson, who opened Brewberry’s 13 years ago. “When we were faced with this new rival, people asked me how they could help. What could they do? Did I want bumper stickers? Some 5-year-olds sold some of their toys at a garage sale and brought me the money — I think it was $5.50. Soon I realized that what I had was more than a place to get a cup of coffee.”

Patrons rallied, and the shop successfully weathered the mega-chain invasion. But what did this modest, cheerful cafe have or do or mean that inspired such loyalty? A number of social thinkers, planners and activists would answer with a single word: community.

A strong, vibrant community — whether a city, a church group, a neighborhood or a coffee shop — requires far more than savvy economic investment and top-down strategic planning. And once established, it delivers far more than a set of predictable commodities and amenities.

Real community thrives on an organic, participatory sort of energy and intent that is, at least in part, unpredictable. And it delivers a set of inherently human, face-to-face opportunities — to connect, share, interact, help and discover — that are nearly impossible to reproduce through strategy or corporate guile.

Real communities help us feel a part of something real, integrated, tangible. They deepen and refine our sense of place, bring out the best in us, and help us recognize, unquestionably, that we belong.

For all these reasons and more, community has the power to nourish and sustain us in countless ways — many of which science is only just beginning to understand. And for all these same reasons, a sense of community is something worth building, maintaining and holding dear.

Why We Need Each Other

We Americans love our independence — sometimes to the point of dangerous isolation. 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, found that 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.

Why We Go Our Separate Ways

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.

The Power of Public Spaces

“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.”

And opportunities for affection come in many forms. Jay Walljasper, senior fellow at PPS and author of The Great Neighborhood Book (New Society, 2007), acknowledges that community gives us a sense of belonging and familiarity, but insists that the unexpected — the happy accident and the unforeseen encounter — are equally important. “Modern life is such a mad rush that we always seem to be performing a kind of triage: Is this activity necessary or unnecessary? We’ve almost lost an important secondary layer of needs, which includes the part of life we don’t plan, the chance encounters with people who aren’t necessarily our best friends, but who enrich our lives,” he says.

Kent and Walljasper are in the business of advising communities about how to improve the vitality of their public spaces, from streets to public parks to markets. But Kent says that you don’t need a panel of experts to transform your neighborhood into the kind of community he’s talking about. “We were working up in Canada, and I met a very quiet, modest man who told me that he had put a bench on the corner in front of his suburban house,” he says. “At first, people got upset about it — it wasn’t the sort of thing you did in his neighborhood. Then someone else put out a bench, which broke the ice! People started sitting on them. And then they started to get to know each other — and soon the street took on a whole different life.”

Kent acknowledges that there are obstacles to even this kind of simple change. In some cases, zoning laws or rules govern housing developments. But the biggest obstacles tend to be internal: “So many of us don’t want others to come near,” he says. “People are told to be fearful of everything, but they’re not sure why. In most places, crime is lower than it was a decade ago, and terrorists are probably not going to come to your house, yet still there’s more fear than ever. Breaking out of that mold brings a kind of liberation.”

But just how do you get past an emotion as powerful as fear? Walljasper suggests that community building and fear reduction are pretty much the same process. “Small talk is how so many things begin,” he says. When you’re talking about the weather or children or pets, sometimes the anxieties and fears and “what-ifs” just melt away. And a little chat like that can also let you know that this isn’t someone you want to spend time with.

“In our anxiety to protect ourselves, we forget that if we take a risk for community and things go wrong, we do have options,” Walljasper says. “If you set out a bench in front of your house and panhandlers take it over, call the police! Make a commitment to community, and if it isn’t perfect, respond appropriately. What most people discover is that most of the problems they anticipate just don’t arise.”

Still, 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 book, How to Believe (Random House, 2007), will be published this fall.

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