“Community” has a buzziness about it. The phrase has been appropriated by commerce, turning a word meant to describe ambient human connection into a marketing effort. A very effective marketing effort at that: a community speaks to our desire to belong and to congregate.
But community has long-been the foundation upon which healthy relationships, families, and neighborhood economics have been built on. It is integral to both our personal wellbeing as well as the underlying safety and wellness of the neighborhoods we inhabit. A little potluck goes a long way.
This is Your Brain on Community
We’re a bunch of animals and we tend to act like it. Even though we’ve insulated ourselves from environmental dangers with townhomes and cars, our most basic brain-function still trends toward scanning: for food, for sex, and of course, for danger.
That scanning isn’t a passive exercise: it takes up a ton of energy in our brains. When we find ourselves in situations where we feel like an outsider, we’re putting a lot of mental energy towards monitoring “threats” – which leaves us a lot less mental space to put towards meeting new people.
Imagine going to a big party with a few friends vs. going all by yourself. You’re much more likely to feel comfortable and have fun in the first scenario – evolutionary science tells us that that comfort level is thanks to feeling safe in a group.
According to the Mayo Clinic, healthy friendships can increase a sense of belonging, purpose, and happiness. Most critically, the presence of those pals helps our brain govern our hormonal response levels to stress much more effectively. Fewer hormonal spikes = less of that panicky feeling in your gut = much easier to conduct yourself at that party you’re attending. We function better when our social needs are met.
Your Body on Community
At the other end, isolation impedes your ability to function because it takes so much energy to be lonely. We mentioned the hormonal response, but the psychology of loneliness really manifests in your body. Unmet social needs are associated with eroded arteries, high blood pressure, and irregular circulatory function: it literally breaks your heart.
The isolation also heightens one’s awareness of perceived threat. Suddenly, you don’t just feel awkward flying solo at a party, you’re feeling weird about going to the coffee-shop, or getting your groceries.
Lonely individuals report feeling more stressed when exposed to pedestrian stressors than the non-lonely. That heightened stress causes myriad other issues in our bodies, most notably less restorative sleep and fewer nutritious meals. If it’s just you you’re cooking for, an oven pizza is easy and cheap.
Our desire to be social also expresses itself as caretaking – a mutually beneficial position. Still not convinced to join a club? A 2010 meta-analysis of 148 other studies showed that social connection doesn’t just help us survive health problems: it makes us have less of them.
The Empathy Effect
A community isn’t just about having a group to bring to parties. Human connection helps us heal ourselves, and builds up stronger immunity to ailments both physical and psychological. In an explainer article, The Scientific American outlines how our brains process emotional and physical pain in the same place – which of course, takes us back to those pesky hormones spikes, and their penchant for stressing us out.
Community isn’t just about creating relationships – although that is a central component. It’s also about building a space, both physical and emotional, to better communicate empathy to your fellows.
It’s well documented that caretakers who provide empathy as well as medicine to their patients see considerably better medical results.
In one experiment, 262 patients diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were split into three groups:
- One receiving no treatment
- One receiving a placebo delivered from a somewhat rude and uncaring nurse
- One receiving a placebo administered by a warm, kind caretaker
All the patients were told explicitly that they were receiving a placebo, and yet the final group – the ones who were well-cared for – saw their symptoms improve by 62%: “as big an effect as has ever been found for any drug tested for IBS.”
The research suggests that if our bodies can be convinced that they are cared for and secure, we can likely expect biological changes that support healing.
Making friends can be a vulnerable challenge: every time we expose ourselves, we flirt with risk. Our hormones are poised to fling themselves off the metaphorical cliff, pulling us into that downward spiral along with them.
But by proactively creating community around us – with friends, club memberships, neighborhood acquaintances, and a more available empathy in ourselves – we strengthen our ability to participate, and in turn, support our brains and bodies.
Are you a visual person? If so, we illustrated this page into an infographic you can see here: How a Sense of Community Belonging Impacts The Brain.