While social media and the digital age may have created thriving online communities, real-life community interaction is at an all-time low. Add to that our fast-paced big-city lifestyles, and it’s no surprise that recent data by Signa shows 52% of Americans feel lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation go hand-in-hand. Switching off your smartphone and getting out in the community can drastically improve your mood, mental health, and overall well-being.
So why aren’t we doing it?
It seems like we have forgotten the importance of community participation. Interacting with those around us makes us happier and healthier, and contributing to our local community can bring more purpose to our lives.
So whether you’re feeling lonely, lost, or low, read on to learn why getting involved in the community could be just what you need!
The Importance (And Benefits) Of A Strong Local Community
According to a report by the British Journal Of Social Psychology, levels of loneliness have reached epidemic proportions worldwide. The report explored three studies to understand further the relationships between community belonging, loneliness, and well-being.
They found that living in a robust local community can benefit your well-being in many ways, including:
- Reduced feelings of loneliness and social anxiety
- Enhanced community identification and sense of belonging
- Better ability to cope with challenges and stress
- Overall better mental health
Margot L Rawsthorne is a professor from The University of Sydney who has carried out a wide range of research on topics such as social exclusion and community resilience building.
In chapter two of her research paper ‘Lifting Our Gaze,’ she explores the OECD’s claims that the higher the social capital a community has, the more socially advantageous outcomes.
Social capital is a term coined by OECD, referring to the networks, relationships, and values among people that facilitate cooperation and enable the community to function effectively. Margot’s research found that higher social capital results in lower crime and unemployment rates and fewer hospital visits.
People living in high social capital areas reported:
- Feeling safe around their community
- Having a deeper sense of meaning and purpose
Meanwhile, those living in low social capital areas reported:
- Feelings of insecurity and distrust
- More chronic health problems and poorer mental health
- No sense of belonging or togetherness
- Increased social isolation and loneliness
What Makes A Community Strong
An engaged community is a strong one, so typically, the more social offerings and groups a community has, the higher the social capital. The more social engagement in a community, the more trust, cooperation, and understanding there is likely to be between people.
Margot L Rawsthorne’s research in rural Australia supports this. In her research paper, she shares the common values of a community with healthy social capital compared to one with unhealthy social capital:
|Healthy Social Capital
|Unhealthy Social Capital
|Distrust of strangers/difference
|‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ mentality
|Tight knit but excluding
|Fear of the unknown
|Alliance across difference
|Dislike change and new ideas
|Questioning and open to new ideas
Aside from social capital, two other types of wealth contribute to a strong community.
Human capital refers to the skills, knowledge, social connections, cultural awareness, and experience possessed by the members of a community and the value this creates. The more human assets a community has, the more it can enhance its quality of life by improving local facilities and resources.
In addition, communities with high human capital typically have trustworthy and transparent leadership, which is another key to a strong community.
Economic capital refers to the financial resources a town or city has. High economic prosperity can result in improved infrastructure, increased opportunities available to the community, and an overall better quality of life.
Two professors from Ghent University, Wouter Pinxten and John Lievens, explored the link between economic, social, and cultural capital and community health, which Sociology of Health & Illness then published.
Pinxten and Lievens found that areas with low economic capital can cause increased stress and feelings of powerlessness among the community members, which then leads to poor health.
Meaningful Ways To Contribute To Your Local Community
We can do many things to improve the social, human, and economic capital in the area we live in. From shopping local to volunteering to mentoring, here are some empowering ways to impact the lives of those around you and build a stronger community.
- Keep Money In The Local Economy
Supporting local businesses is one simple but effective way to contribute to your community.
The American Independent Business Alliance conducted an economic impact analysis on independent vs. chain stores by compiling results from nine studies. They found that 48% of each purchase from a local independent retailer recirculates locally, while less than 14% of a purchase from a chain store stays in the local community.
Thus, small independent businesses contribute (economically) to the local community three times more than big chain stores do.
With chain convenience stores on every corner and a high presence of big-brand supermarkets, we typically buy from large corporations more than local businesses.
However, did you know your weekly grocery shop at a chain supermarket takes money from your local economy? This is because it reduces the revenue of local independent stores and can also reduce the number of local jobs.
In contrast, just by the nature of being local, small independent businesses are actively investing in and contributing to their local economy. So choosing to shop at local retailers creates more revenue for businesses in your community, which keeps money in the local area and, thus, increases economic capital.
In addition, independent stores are likely to purchase goods and services from local suppliers and distributors, and they are more likely to hire local workers. Thus, your money is recirculated in the community, creating a local support cycle.
Support Local Farmers
Similarly, choosing to buy your produce from local farmers will strengthen your community’s economic capital. When farmers sell directly to consumers, they receive around 80% of the money as they don’t have to pay for packaging, marketing, or transportation. This is a vast difference from buying produce from a supermarket where the farmers receive just 10% of profits!
Buying from local farmers also means you’ll eat fresher, healthier food. Plus, it minimizes environmental damage as the food is transported much shorter distances and uses far fewer resources than conventional agriculture.
- Build A Strong Local Network
Forming authentic connections with the people around you is another way to build a strong community and improve your well-being.
Build Relationships With Your Neighbors
Nowadays, many of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names, let alone anything about them.
However, building a relationship with your neighbors improves your day-to-day life as you’ll have a local support network. It also allows you to work with others to improve things in the community.
While starting a conversation with your neighbor for the first time may seem a little intimidating, there is nothing to worry about. Most people are open to interacting with their neighbors and will appreciate you making the first move.
You can initiate a conversation by asking a question. Pets are great icebreakers, so if you see them walking their dog, you can start by asking the dog’s name. Or if you have recently moved to the area, ask them something about the local community or how long they have lived there.
Once you have built up some rapport with your neighbor, you can further develop the relationship by inviting them somewhere (or simply asking them in for tea or coffee). Or if you see them struggling or in need of something, offer to do them a favor.
Join Community Groups
Building relationships in the community goes beyond the occasional chit-chat with a neighbor. To find out how you can help to make a difference in the community, you’ll need to meet as many local people as possible. One of the best ways to do this is by joining community groups and attending local events.
If your town has a community center, this is a great place to start, as there will likely be regular events and clubs there. Or, if you already have a hobby, such as yoga, you can visit the local yoga studio where you will surely meet like-minded locals.
Building a strong local network can be extra challenging if you do not live in your home country, especially if the local language is not your mother tongue. As someone who has lived in Thailand for three years, I know how difficult it can be to integrate with the locals when there is a language barrier.
However, most cities and towns with a significant expat community run meet-ups. Getting to know other expats can help to reduce loneliness and help you feel more integrated in the community. If you can’t find any existing meet-ups or events, why not take the initiative and organize one?
- Be An Active Positive Participant
Lastly, giving back is an essential aspect of contributing to your local community. You can make a difference to the community and those living there in many ways, from volunteering at a homeless center to starting an animal rescue project to offering free mentoring to the local youths.
When deciding how best to contribute to your community, consider the following things:
- What does the community need the most?
- What skills do you have? How can you utilize those skills to help?
- What cause do you feel passionate about? What problem in the community do you feel a strong desire to change?
Understand The Community’s Needs
Every community has different needs, and sometimes they are not obvious. However, by understanding the community’s demographics, such as the primary socio-economic status, you can see how you can best make a difference.
For example, unemployment rates will likely be high if you live in an area with a poor education system. Thus, a career mentoring program for young people could be beneficial for helping them identify their unique skills and prepare for the workplace.
However, starting a project, program, or community initiative yourself is not always easy. You may need to apply for funding or convince the local council/government that change is necessary. Therefore, sometimes the best thing you can do to make a difference is to use your voice.
To do this, get involved in local politics or apply to join the local committee. This will allow you to speak publicly about the community’s needs and what you propose should be done. Another way to get your message to the “people in power” is through peaceful protests and demonstrations.
Donate Your Time, Skills, & Services
Once you identify a vital need in the community, think about how you can help. How much time can you dedicate? Do you have any existing skills you can utilize? Do you have expert knowledge on the subject or have connections with people who do? Do you have the necessary resources to get your idea or the ground?
Going back to the previous example of offering a mentoring service for unemployed youths, if you have worked as a career coach before, you would clearly be qualified to start this initiative. But maybe you don’t have the time or resources you need to get it started.
Remember, community is about working together, so connect with as many other people in the area and combine your skills, time, and resources to make the most significant impact.
Finding And Following Your Passion
Over the years, I have volunteered in many ways. I’ve found that knowing the community’s needs and having the skills/resources/time is not enough if one key ingredient is missing – passion.
When I first came to Thailand, I (literally) had sick and injured stray kittens turn up on my doorstep and follow me home. It didn’t take me long to realize that there is a big problem with stray cats in Thailand.
As most of them are unsterilized, they reproduce rapidly. And with no proper medical care and numerous predators around, many get sick and are left to die on the streets alone.
As a self-proclaimed “cat person,” I could not watch these innocent beings suffer. Moreover, as someone always open to omens from the universe, I knew this was a sign to use my passion for cats to make a difference.
Fast forward three years, and I have rescued, vaccinated, sterilized, and rehomed over 40 kittens and cats, along with providing necessary medical treatment to many more.
When you combine passion with the community’s needs and your skills, you make a difference because you want to, not because you think you should or because you want something in return.
A strong community is one full of people who identify the community’s problems and use their skills and passion to make a difference. But you don’t have to start a big community project to make a difference in your local area.
Start small by choosing to shop from local businesses rather than big chains. Or, if you’re an introvert, push yourself out of your comfort zone by attending a local event. You never know where it will lead you!
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