Like many Americans, I have tended to place a lot of importance on self-sufficiency and freedom. But this drive to do everything on my own has prevented me from realizing how good it is to be closely connected to people, to rely on others and be relied upon.
I remember when I was a 20-something and thought temping was the best work because I felt free from ties to a company, a boss, or even a geographical location. Yet when I finally took a permanent position, I was surprised to find that I actually loved settling down. Even though it was just a job, it felt good to be part of a company, to have a boss to take care of, and to know co-workers that knew me too.
Marriage is a form of community too. Getting married is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t think it’s just me. Mountains of research show that married people are happier than the unattached. Humans are wired to bond, and committing to someone for life is the ultimate tie.
Our first four years of marriage were spent in Italy, and some of my fondest memories are connected with the groups I belonged to. From expat associations and mom-and-tot playgroups, to a writing circle and even the maternity ward in the Italian hospital where new moms walked down the hall to eat meals together — communities fed my soul and made me a stronger, more confident person.
Once in the U.S., we moved from city to city where we had no family and few, if any, friends. What’s more we chose to live on a very limited budget so that Enrico could retrain and I could take care of the kids full-time.
It was this money constraint that helped me break out of my shell. I’ve always been a little shy, and my generation (X) is not known for being civically engaged. But the babysitting exchanges and cooperative playgroups that people in our neighborhood had been enjoying since the 1970s piqued my interest, and eventually I joined.
Getting involved in these organized groups helped bring me out of an isolated mom-at-home life, and into communities of people where I found the comfort of regular social interaction and a sense of pride in my neighborhood.
By joining communities, I was braided into networks of families who ended up sharing carpools, baby gear, and dinners together. We traded tips and maternity clothes, we pooled money and party supplies, we made walking school buses and neighborhood newsletters.
But if we had been comfortable financially, I wonder if I would have asked favors, for fear I would have to return them, never realizing that I would be happy to do so.
Joining Groups Helps People Prosper
At the heart of a book I’ve been reading, Robert Putnam’s acclaimed Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is that joining organized groups and being involved on a regular basis has been scientifically proven to be good for our health, psychological well-being, and even our success in life.
Putnam also talks about how our networks of relationships have real value. The term ‘social capital‘ is a way of conceptualizing the intangible resources of trust, shared values, reciprocity, information, and cooperation that flow within communities.
Networks can be vast and loose as well as tight and small, and both are important. That’s because the people we are closest to would be there for us if anything bad happened, but if we are looking for a job or a place to stay overnight, it’s often the far-off connections that can help, since they link us to distant acquaintances who move in different circles.
The Up- and Down-Sides of Relationships
Of course, getting involved with groups of people is bound to involve some personality differences, misunderstandings, and mini-dramas. These conflicts are sometimes enough to make you run for a hermitage in the hills.
But, as they say, nothing worth having comes easy. It can take work to navigate different temperaments, outlooks, and motivations and to find common ground. But interpersonal skills are arguably the most vital, so it seems worth the challenge to continually work toward bettering them.
Privacy, alone time, and freedom are good too, but as with most things in life, a balance is usually the best prescription. Too much togetherness can feel stifling, whereas too much aloneness can be depressing, so something in-between is just right.
Social support helps us deal with the stresses of daily life, and it shows in our health. “The more integrated we are with our community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts,” says Putnam in Bowling Alone.
Studies have long documented the connection between society and emotional well-being: “People who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping,” says Putnam.
The scientific link between connectedness and well-being must explain that paradox I’ve always wondered about: how the positive energy we give to people seems to fill us up with more energy.
“Alone We Can Do So Little; Together We Can Do So Much” –Hellen Keller
The social positive feedback loop was also playing out in a miniature version inside our house. After having our third child, I needed help with the housework. We couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so I asked my daughters — then six and four years old — to help me.
Sofia, Virginia, and I took turns dusting, vacuuming, and cleaning bathrooms on the weekends (using a chore wheel), and during the week, they alternated setting the table, playing with the baby while I cooked, and sweeping the kitchen after dinner.
Of course it took time and effort to train my little helpers (and to keep up the routine despite the grouching), but the payoffs were profound and multi-faceted. For one, I was happier because I felt supported, and with the extra time we did more fun things as a family.
Even better was how the act of helping changed the children. They were more settled and grounded. I think giving them responsibilities that were essential to our household made them feel useful and necessary. We all feel a sense of accomplishment when we learn a new skill. And seeing that their work makes a difference must give them a sense of purpose.
Over the years we have kept up the family chore system. The tasks are always shifting based on what the family needs, but daily and weekly chores are built into our routine. Sofia and Virginia are now taking turns getting their brothers ready for bed, and dressing their baby sister in the morning. Mark and Luke unload the groceries, set the table, watch Diana, pick up sticks in the yard, vacuum the kitchen, and sort socks.
“Everyone is needed, capable, and appreciated,” I heard a mother say about her children and work. I like this mantra, because it reminds me that even young children can and want to help, and that in today’s busy times, their contribution really is valued.
Save Money, Build Community, Make Life Better
Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been fascinated by the kind of magic that happens when people work together. How the positive effects ripple way beyond just saving money.
I am thankful for how the lean years helped draw me into cooperative communities and motivated me to ask for help. Creating those communities and systems can take time and energy, but in the end, we are happier and more efficient.
“Our national myths often exaggerate the role of the individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort,” says Robert Putnam. Yet chances are the most successful people are rich in social capital — friendly connections, helpful neighbors, friends and associates, colleagues and contacts.
Children prosper if the context where they grow up — their family, school, peer group, and larger community — have relationships of trust and cooperation. Neighborhoods with high levels of social capital are safer, cleaner, and friendlier. And the democracy that our country was built upon depends on our participation, trust, and solidarity.
Be The Change You Want to See
We all need community, but our needs can change according to the seasons and situations of our life. Strengthening the sense of community in your circles can begin with very small actions and can grow into bigger ones if you want.
Here are some ideas to try:
5 Small Ways to Nurture Community
- Find out the names of people you see every day and say hello
- Go to a high school or college reunion, or organize an annual mini-reunion with college friends
- Instead of selling something on Craigslist, give it away to someone you know
- Join a group: a book club, an improvement committee, a sports team, a PTA, a church
- Ask a neighbor, instead of Google, for advice on your garden, your house, your job
5 Medium Ways to Build Community
- Bring dinner to a family who had just had a baby, a death in the family, or a sickness
- Host a coffee to introduce a new neighbor
- Plant a conversation-starting garden in your front yard
- Buy season’s tickets to a theater or stadium with a friend so you’ll have a standing date
- Start a babysitting swap on a regular schedule with other parents
5 Bigger Ways to Jumpstart Community
- Organize an outdoor movie, an egg hunt, or ice cream social in your neighborhood
- Take on a leadership role in a community organization, school group, or city council
- Organize a clothing swap party, a toy exchange, or Halloween costume swap at your school or church
- Create a map of everyone who lives in your neighborhood (include emails, phone numbers, children)
- Take turns with neighbors hosting monthly “Porch Sits” where people come to chat and catch up
Joining and creating communities is one of my favorite ways to save money and make life better. I love that reaching out to others not only helps me, but it helps other people too. And I love that you don’t have to do anything major like head a committee or organize an event.
Simply interacting and being kind is good, says Mark K. Smith, author of The Art of Helping Others, because it helps people slowly build communities, commit to each other, and to knit the social fabric.