Have you noticed how humans aren’t particularly good at doing what is best for them? That so often we do what we want, when it is the exact opposite of what we need?
We want strong friendships, but after a long day at work we would rather retreat home than say yes to an after work get together. We want a strong relationship with our partner/family, but it’s so much easier to stare at a screen and zone out when we are tired, instead of having a meaningful conversation. We want to be seen as supportive to the people in our lives, but when the stress in our own individual little world builds up the knee jerk reaction is often to say NO to others. Don’t get me wrong, setting boundaries and learning when to say no is a healthy habit to get into, but it is also important to be mindful of who and what we are saying no to, because so often the very thing we need more of is the people in our lives. And that requires saying yes.
Human beings need to feel a sense of connection and belonging – this is a fundamental truth of how we are hard wired. We are social creatures and when we feel connection and experience community it gives meaning and purpose to our lives. When we don’t feel a sense of connection to others the result is suffering. This is true for all human beings except for sociopaths, so odds are you need human connection in your life.
Despite this fundamental truth, kindness and compassion and putting others first can be difficult and often requires concentrated practice (hint: mindfulness meditation helps with this). Even though we are hard wired to be a social species, one that requires positive relationships with others to lead happy and healthy lives, we are also pretty equally good at being egotistical and selfish. We often trip over ourselves and get in our own way when it comes to building healthy and productive relationships.
We need all types of relationships to get the connection we need – this includes the close connections that family and friends provide, but also our broader social networks and more informal relationships. I’d argue both are equally important.
I’m very lucky to have positive close relationships with my partner, family and a solid group of close friends that are supportive and do a great job of reminding me to have a little fun. These people bring me joy! But I also have a broader community that is made up of my coworkers, people I sail and paddle with, people at my gym and yoga studio, people I volunteer with. These groups are not my closest friends and connections but they provide me with a richer and fuller life. And herein lies the real magic of community – by casually showing up in their lives from time to time, I pay it back and in turn help them to live a richer and fuller life.
This is illustrated beautifully in the book Count Me In by Emily White. White is a Toronto writer that was feeling increasingly disconnected in the modern world, particularly in a big city like Toronto.
In her quest for relief of this modern condition, she came across research that tells us that many of our traditional community institutions are dying – memberships to service clubs like Rotary are down, people don’t belong to unions or faith groups as much – the bedrock of what we have traditionally built community on is in real trouble (Side note: If you’re really into this topic do a deep read of Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam).
White embarked on a personal quest to increase the connection and community in her life by purposefully joining in activities in her neighbourhood, by volunteering for organizations she believed in and even “buying” community by taking yoga classes and other paid activities. What she found was not surprising – she reported the feeling of having a richer and fuller life through these activities and that she had a better sense of well being and connection to her community.
After putting it down I did some reflection on the acts of community and connection in my life and I realized that ONE act of community I participated in over a decade ago has paid dividends ever since. It goes like this:
It’s incredible that I can trace that ONE action of reaching out and participating in a community meeting to so many subsequent enriching life experiences and relationships. I’m POSITIVE I didn’t want to go to that meeting and I likely had to drag my ass out of the door that night while the couch and TV begged me to stay in. But that is the amazing thing about reaching out to your fellow humans, those connections can end up nudging your life in a direction you could never have predicted, and you end up living a richer and fuller life for it. And whether you know it or not, you most definitely will shape the lives of others in return.
Community is so beautiful because it’s reciprocal. When we reach out to create connection it gives our lives purpose and meaning and it brings the same richness to the lives of others in our community as well. This positive feedback loop is one of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience.
If you are feeling like your life is lacking in connection try something different. How can you reach out to others and participate in your community this week? Can you do ONE thing that is different from your usual routine, that might help you rub elbows with someone new?
Sure, sometimes you go to a community meeting, event or social activity and there is no apparent magic.
Sometimes our attempts at connection end up being a dud. That’s ok. Fight the crabby voice in your head that starts nattering away when you get home from a boring social event and that says unhelpful things like: “I told you so! That was a waste/boring/awkward! Should have stayed home!” That is the voice that will prevent you from ever widening your circle. Just keep practicing reaching out to your fellow humans and see what happens. And if you still feel awkward try to get out of your own head and focus on how you can help them.