The wellbeing benefits of being plugged in to your community
Our society values happiness. Newspapers and magazines are awash with stories about people who claim to have found it, while tips and techniques are promoted as ways of achieving it. Andy Parnham, wellbeing expert and Happiness Course associate for Livability, looks at where happiness really can be found – in the relationships we make in our community.
So valued is the pursuit of happiness in modern Western society that it is even enshrined as a civil right in the American constitution. Although levels of happiness are determined by individual personalities, choices and circumstances, it appears that there is one overall factor that has the greatest impact on whether or not we are happy: the quality of our relationships.
If achieving happiness relies on good relationships, we will need to nurture not only those closest to us, but those in the wider community. However, in the past forty years, communities throughout the UK have become more fractured and less rooted. Our parents’ and grandparents’ communities were more closely knit than is true today. As one recent report concluded, “… even the weakest communities in 1971 were stronger than any community now.”
Headlines such as, The loneliness epidemic: we’re more connected than ever – but are we feeling more alone? dominate our media. The absence of meaningful relationships results in loneliness and social isolation. And it’s not just our mental health that is suffering. In the long term, it has a detrimental effect on our physical health, equivalent to lifelong smoking or obesity and increasing the risk of premature death by around 30%.
It’s vital for our society that we start to find ways to rebuild and re-energise communities and re-connect with each other. Strong communities have rich social networks, made up of reciprocal relationships, in which people feel supported and enjoy a strong sense of belonging to something that is bigger than themselves.
Good community everywhere is created from a set of building blocks that work together to form a robust structure. They include individual and personal values, culture, the family, education, the physical environment, economic equality. These are the characteristics of a healthy civil society. Whilst it is true that some of these are the responsibilities of state and government, they mostly come from within, from ordinary people like us.
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The starting point, and probably one of the most powerful ways for us to create community, is through face-to-face contact with others. Far more effective than having hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook, it can be as simple as saying ‘hello’ to your neighbour. In more traditional communities, talking to your neighbour is still part of daily life. It may be a courtesy that has been eroded in our cities, yet greeting someone on the street doesn’t take too much initiative, and could be the start of a rich relationship.
Building community has been a key part of the Church’s work throughout our history. The first schools, universities, hospitals, hospices and the probation service were all established by pioneering Christian believers. More recently, the Church has taken more of a back seat and many congregations feel that they are unable to make a real difference in society. But the truth is that, both as individuals and as part of a church community, we can make a difference, both locally and beyond.
For many years I led a local church in South London, and with others, tried out many ways of engaging with our community, including initiating Neighbourhood Watch schemes, running street parties and holding Sunday brunches at our local school. Over a number of years, I also organised street parties in my own road. Quite quickly a team of keen householders emerged, uniting an otherwise disparate group of people.
Now I am course leader of The Happiness Course, a programme that explores the meaning of happiness and wellbeing. When I first started working with the course, we were able to promote it through a grant from the local council. It provided an invaluable tool to help a whole range of different groups – from seniors to mums and toddlers, among others – to connect with each other in their local community. It was a start of a journey that is still going on today. The Happiness Course is now supported by Livability and used by Christian organisations and churches worldwide. It continues to build relationships at a local level and has formed a community all of its own.
So what can you do where you live? Here are three areas worth considering:
1. Grow in wellbeing yourself. Health and wellness initiatives often focus on the physical (nutrition, exercise, etc.), but we need health in all areas of life: mental, emotional, relational and spiritual. What could you do to grow in each of these?
2. Get to know other people. Many of us pursue isolated, privatised lives – and we’ve already seen the results of that! It may be counter-cultural, but reaching out to others we live among makes a profound difference, even if it takes time. How could you do that?
3. Engage with your neighbourhood, society and world. Putting our heads in the sand as we decry society’s woes will not do. We all have opportunities to become part of the answer rather than the problem, and there are many ways to do that. Bettertogether.org lists 150 ways to engage with your community, including volunteering, providing a surprise meal for neighbours, avoiding gossip and saying hello to strangers. Of course the possibilities are endless – it’s the mindset that matters!