As a boy who grew up in the individualistic Western world, by the time I was a young adult I knew nothing about the importance of community. And I consider myself blessed. I grew up having amazing friends and regularly interacting with my extended family. Compared to many children growing up isolated in suburbia, I received attention and affection from several sources during my formative years. It’s the Latino way.
Yet, despite my gregarious upbringing, when the time came for me to become a fully functioning adult in the west I had little understanding of how to do that. Rather, I was consumed by the pleasure traps laid out in our civilization; cheap pleasure afforded by drugs, sex and entertainment.
I had never taken the time to reflect on the values which directed my choices.
What values delivered true growth and success? What choices would lead me to health, wealth and peace of mind? What did I have to contribute to the greater human endeavor? What truly matters in life?
I had never asked myself these questions.
Up until my mid-twenties, I had very little idea of what made life substantial. I chased shiny objects and ignored true wealth and well-being. It wasn’t until I experienced the consequences of my ignorance that I took the time to reflect on what truly mattered in life.
I’ve been reflecting ever since.
I’ve come to realize that one of the things which truly matters is community. A word that is getting increasingly bandied about these days and rightly so. Communities are our civilization’s life blood; they keep us happy and healthy, they educate our children, they care for our elderly and they care for our planet.
As we make our communities they, in turn, make us.
It’s Time To Return To Community!
As a species, we have spent the last couple of centuries turning away from real, substantive communities. And the consequences are being felt everywhere. In the United States, depression and suicide are on the rise, and young people have never been more lonely and lost.
The time to return to community-oriented living is upon us. Indeed, it is already happening around the world. This article is going to gently nudge you in the direction of reconsidering your role in your community. By presenting evidence of the central role communities play in our health and happiness I will show you that by focusing on our communities we can achieve sustainable, meaningful success throughout our lives.
What Is A Community?
We always start at definitions here at Explode Your Wealth. To begin with, what is a community?
A community is a group of living things which share common values, norms, customs and/or identity.
Up until the creation of the internet, communities also shared a sense of place by being localized in a given geographical area. Now, thanks to the internet, communities can also reside in our civilization’s digital space.
Non-human animals and plants have it easy when it comes to existing in a community. They just do it, no questions asked. Humans, on the other hand, with our pesky self-consciousness, have a tougher time at forming stable communities.
In order to live harmoniously in a community our beliefs must match those of the community’s. The more mismatch there is between an individual’s beliefs and those of his/her community’s, the more conflictive the relationship. While conflict and criticism are essential for growth, if that conflict goes beyond the point of tolerance either the community kicks the individual out or he/she chooses to leave it.
Living In A Community. It’s Challenging
Our ability to question our group identity is both one of our greatest human privileges and one of our largest sources of strife. As an example, look at the some of the challenges Amish people face when they choose to leave their communities (examples here and here).
Living in a community is not all roses. There are real challenges which come from being part of one. The challenge stems from balancing individual identity with group identity, a tight-rope act that every human being alive is engaged in whether we’re aware of it or not.
However, the challenge of living in a community is far outweighed by the benefits it brings us.
This is because human beings have evolved to be part of a community. There is no way around it. Billions of years of evolution have built a community instinct into our limbic brain. Our primitive, emotional, primate brain craves to be part of something greater, living in harmony with a larger whole. It craves it so much that when we fail to find this resonant harmony we slip into depression and anxiety.
But when we do manage to enter into a harmonious relationship with a community, magic happens. Because it’s when we are part of a community that we access our greatest power. It’s no surprise that the greatest feats performed by humankind have always come from groups of people with common values acting in harmony.
How Does Living In A Harmonious Community Empower Us?
The short answer is: in every way.
One of my favorite TED talks ever is this one by Dr. Robert Waldinger. He is the 4th director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a seminal study which has tracked the lives of 724 men since 1938. In the talk, Dr. Waldinger says that the study may be the longest one ever done on adult life.
Throughout the duration of the study, researchers tracked the lives of these 724 men through questionnaires, interviews (conducted at the men’s homes, both individually and with their wives), medical records, brain scans and other methods. For over 80 years researchers have compiled the most complete picture of the lives of these men as possible.
And what lesson has been learned from the tens of thousands of pages of information which the study has produced?
The Lesson Learned From The Harvard Study of Adult Development
The lesson, according to Dr. Waldinger, is crystal clear: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
The lessons learned are not about money, power or fame. It’s about how strong, nurturing relationships with other living beings are profoundly good for us and that being lonely kills.
Dr. Waldinger says: “It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, they’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well-connected.”
He goes on to talk about loneliness:
“And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they wanna be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time more than 1 in 5 Americans will report that they’re lonely.”
Then he talks about the quality of our relationships:
“[…] it’s not just the number of friends you have and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
Finally, on the topic of relationship satisfaction, he says:
“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Dr. Waldinger’s Talk Shook Me To The Core
If you haven’t watched the talk, I highly recommend you do so. It’s a total game changer. At least it was for me, when I saw it for the first time at the age of 26.
Watching that talk sent me into a spiral of questioning. When I first watched it, I was living a life focused on attaining professional success. I was miserable. I was lost. And I didn’t even know it. The talk was one of the first road signs which began pointing me in the direction of real, meaningful values.
I have embodied the lessons of the Harvard Study of Adult Development ever since and my life has changed for the better. With full confidence, I can write that focusing on building strong, meaningful and nurturing relationships with others leads us to greater success in every area of life.
It brings to mind the African proverb:
“If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.”
Go together. That’s what we’re here for. Ram Dass said: “We’re all just walking each other home”.
A Community Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
Humans are the most social of the animals. We evolved to be together. Our senses and emotions are exquisitely attuned to the emotional states of others. Mirror neurons enable us to experience what others experience simply by observing them. The people around us take on our emotions through the process of emotional contagion.
We make others feel the way we feel.
Each of us is a living, breathing superhub enmeshed in a network of flowing information. We intake information, process it and output it into this network, this web of life. The result is an emergent superintelligence comprised by all of us. Every thought, feeling and action ripples through this web of life. Our contributions impact the universe in ways we are only beginning to understand.
A doctor named Nicholas Kristakis has studied how our networks affect us. In this TED talk he shows how if we have a friend who is obese our probability of being obese is 45% higher. Additionally, if our friend’s friend is obese, our risk of obesity is 25% higher. Furthermore, if our friend’s friend’s friend is obese our chances of being obese are 10% greater.
The network effect isn’t confined to obesity. Happiness too, spreads through social networks. Having happy friends increases our happiness.
I believe the same thing can be said about financial wealth. If our friends are rich we are more likely to be rich ourselves.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all part of something way bigger than ourselves. An ever-evolving superorganism which spans the globe.
Understanding the power each of us has to send ripples through the web of life, is crucial to discovering our place in the world and living a happy and serviceful life.
I Didn’t Know About Any Of This A Few Years Ago
At the end of his TED talk, Dr. Christakis says: “I think, in fact, that if we realized how valuable social networks are we’d spend a lot more time nourishing them and sustaining them. Because I think that social networks are fundamentally related to goodness. And what I think the world needs now is more connections.”
This is along the lines of what Dr. Waldinger says in his TED talk. These two people are speaking from a trove of empirical evidence and giving the same message.
Their message is: relationships are a fundamental source of health and happiness.
Every human wants to be happy. To paraphrase Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and author, no human being wakes up in the morning thinking “May I be miserable all day.” There is a fundamental drive in human beings to be happy. Every one of our actions we take because we believe it will make us happy.
If our relationships with others are a fundamental source of happiness, and we all want to be happy, how come so few of us learn about their importance?
Instead, we learn that professional/material/consumerist success is primary. At least I did. Growing up, I wasn’t explicitly taught the value of relationships. I learned how to make friends and how to treat others well, but I didn’t learn how fundamentally important those relationships were to my well-being.
I took those relationships for granted.
I was ignorant of the importance of relationships. That ignorance brought me great suffering. I made choices which prioritized professional success over relationship success and paid the price.
And I’m not the only one.
Do You Ever Feel Lonely? If So, You’re Not Alone!
Loneliness is the new epidemic. A study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education concluded that “Alarming numbers of Americans are lonely”. According to the study, young adults, ages 18 to 25, are the loneliest group, with 61% of them saying that they feel lonely “frequently”. And the ridiculous, hurtful lockdowns enforced by governments over 2020 and 2021 haven’t helped.
Loneliness is a type of pain, an evolutionary adaptation which drives us to seek out the company of others. When we’re lonely, it means that we aren’t making the choices which bring us the happiness of connection. Loneliness is a message, it tells us we need to change our choices.
But how can we make the choice to seek out others when we’re ignorant of the importance of relationships?
We can’t. Not until we learn to value relationships by suffering through their absence. That’s how it happened with me as a young adult. Our suffering teaches us.
So new questions then arise, how did so many of us ever manage to become so ignorant of our human needs? How did we forget that our connections to others are a primary source of happiness and health? Why do so few people in our civilization know the value of relationships and prioritize them over professional/material success?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. Or maybe I do.
Knowing those answers is less important than knowing where to go from here.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The answer is simple, yet challenging to implement, especially for westerners who’ve been conditioned to be individualistic to the point of isolation. The solution to the loneliness epidemic has to come from us.
We must build up our communities
How do we do that?
By prioritizing relationships.
Paradoxically, when we put our relationships first, success comes organically and with less effort. This is because humans are strongest when we’re together. The successful lone wolf is a myth. Success is a network effect. It blossoms in togetherness.
In other words, work on building a healthy community and you will be successful. Invest in people and the returns handle themselves. After all, ideas and opportunities come from people! You never know where an interaction with another person might take you.
Human beings are unpredictable. However, you can be sure that if you go into a relationship with an open heart and positive intention, you will be lead somewhere good.
(As an aside, I grew up in Mexico City, where culture overwhelmingly teaches us to be distrustful of others. While I don’t ever recall being hurt by trusting others, I don’t deny that there are people in the world who want to do us harm. Rely on your intuition when opening yourself up to someone.)
Let me be clear, when I say “put relationships before success” I don’t mean to put relationships before yourself. Take care of yourself first; eat nutritious whole foods, exercise, meditate, do everything you can to keep your body and mind in peak condition.
By caring for ourselves first we are better able to care for our relationships. We have more to offer and can contribute mightily to building a healthy community wherever we are.
How To Build Community Wherever You Are
I’ve moved a lot throughout my adult life. I’ve started over from scratch more than a few times in a few countries. I can say that one of the keys to creating a happy, healthy life wherever you are is to join or create a healthy community.
We do this by actively engaging with the world.
Since most young adults have full-time jobs and modern human life is psychologically draining, the weekends are the best times for us to engage in community-building.
In this era of 40-hour workweeks we must use our weekends well!
No hiding in our dank apartment playing video games all weekend. Nor is binge watching series locked away in our room an option. Many young adults who are guilty of doing these very things also complain about being unhappy or unhealthy.
To build/become a part of a healthy community we have to go out into the world, roll up our sleeves and pitch in. We all have something to offer. Our responsibility is to discover what that is and implement it in service to others. Pay attention. Be Present.
Community-Building Demands Action
Some of the activities we can do to jump-start the community joining/building process.
- Starting/joining a club based on shared interests.
- Taking a dancing/drawing/music/martial arts class.
- Volunteering at a community center.
- Joining a church.
- Getting to know your neighbors.
These are just a few examples. Do they sound like they would make you uncomfortable? Good! That means you’ll grow by doing them. Communities don’t build themselves.
Contributing to a community takes time and effort. Nevertheless, the reward for being a contributing member in a vibrant, healthy community is priceless.
Have you ever walked down the street in your neighborhood and been greeted by a neighbor? It’s a wonderful experience. It makes us feel real, like we are right where we belong.
Conclusion: Heaven Is Other People
In his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of The American Community”, political scientist Robert Putnam describes the decline in social capital in the United States since 1950. He details the weakening of the social fabric which used to educate and enrich American’s lives.
He argues that it was technology like television and the internet which was individualizing people’s leisure time.
I agree with Putnam. Wisely used, technology enriches our lives. Misused, technology makes us less human. As we dehumanize, we become less empathetic which erodes trust in both people and institutions. Society collapses.
What our world desperately needs today is more humanity.
In the book “The Social Animal” by David Brooks there is a quote which stands out like a beacon to me. It’s “Heaven is other people”. If that’s the case then so is hell. Heaven and hell are polarities, we can’t have one without the other.
It’s high time we realize that it’s our relationships which make life wonder-filled. Not our social media followers, the number of “likes” our photos get, our professional titles nor our possessions. This doesn’t make these things bad, but it does mean it’s our responsibility to move them to the back of the line in our pursuit of happiness.
I hope this article has shifted something within you. I invite you to dedicate time and energy to build and maintain relationships. I assure you, it’s the path to creating heaven on earth.
I finish with a question.
How do you contribute to your community?
To our wealth and success.