The Importance of Community

“Be part of a group. Life is better that way.”

“Being apart of a community is what makes you happy…not rising to the top and sequestering yourself from community.” This quote is from one of my favorite podcasts, “Tangentially Speaking” with Dr. Christopher Ryan. During this show, he conducted an interview with travel host and producer, Jonathan Legg of ‘The Road Less Traveled’ who is the author of the quote above. I was listening to the podcast while I was driving through my hometown when the subject of ‘community’ came to the forefront of their interview. The two of them, who are both very intelligent and worldly men, explained to the listeners how chasing money, fame, and fortune doesn’t ultimately make us happy as human beings.

I absolutely agree with this assessment made on the podcast and believe that while possessions, money, and owning property can create happiness in the short-term, long-term happiness and fulfillment can only come from strong bonds with your friends, family, and community. Dr. Ryan and Mr. Legg also mentioned in one segment of the podcast how isolating oneself while traveling, and staying in hotels does not create a great life experience. I couldn’t agree more having stayed in nice hotels, hostels, and guesthouses during my own travels.

While one could be very comfortable and relaxed in a hotel, you won’t meet other travelers and potential friends as easily compared to when you’re staying in a cheaper hostel that’s in the city center. Dr. Ryan and Mr. Legg concluded in their discussion on communal living that the best way to live is to have your own space to eat and sleep, but to live in close enough proximity to others nearby that you can still have a sense of community and sharing without being isolated. I believe that compared to recent generations and even further back, the idea of community is starting to weaken and become less important which is in direct contrast to human nature and true happiness.

Harvard Political Scientist and Professor, Robert D. Putnam, was one of the first people to bring to national attention the change and decline in communities with his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” He makes the argument that people have been interacting with each other less and less over the past few decades. Instead of going out to socialize in public through bowling leagues, picnics, sport clubs, religious organizations, etc., more and more people are opting out and have been expanding the amount of time spent using technology as a substitute.

With the ability to have groceries, electronics, books, restaurant food, etc. delivered right to one’s doorstep in major cities and towns now, people have less and less motivation to leave the house. Telecommuting and ‘working from home’ have become more popular as well making ‘office work’ and ‘happy hours’ less obligatory. Social and traditional forms of media have exploded in the sheer amount of offerings whether its’ through websites, TV channels, and/or digital gadgets.

When it comes to community life, religious and social organizations have often formed the backbone and glue that holds people together. However, many different news media outlets have reported that attendance at churches and synagogues have been taking a downward spiral. A growing percentage of Americans are identifying themselves as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ when it comes to their religious beliefs. Personally, I have no problem with our generation being an irreligious one but I do think it’s tough to replicate that type of community within other types of social organizations.

In addition to the close bonds between neighbors that shared religious beliefs can bring, it can provide a sense of belonging just like many other social groups. Beyond religious affiliated groups, membership in long-standing organizations such as the Boy Scouts and other volunteer organizations is also on the decline as well.

Newsweek.com highlighted this trend illustrated this disturbing trend with official numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “In recent years, the percentage of Americans volunteering has dwindled and is now at its lowest level in a decade. Last year, In 2014, the official volunteer rate was 25.4 percent, or 62.6 million people, compared with 29 percent of the population in 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Official statistics on volunteer rates go back only to 2002.)”

Recently, one of the pillars of my community that I was born into and grew up with shuttered its’ doors last year. My local synagogue where I was Bar Mitzvah’d, went to Shabbat services, and celebrated the Jewish holidays was not able to fund itself due to overall lack of membership and decided to merge with another still functional congregation. This was disappointing for me to hear about because I have a lot of fond memories of that place and the people I met there. It was more than just about religion but it was also a gathering place for Jewish residents of the local area to come together and get to know one each other better and form bonds of friendship. While members of the former synagogue have moved on to another synagogue nearby, it’s not the same as it once was and it’s difficult to integrate oneself into a new community.

This is a trend that seems to be replicating itself across the country. Most Americans don’t know their neighbor next door like they used to and beyond the local school PTA of the local town or city, there’s not much anymore to bring people together. The increasing atomization and isolation of people is worrying for me to hear about. However, I am quite positive about the power and spread of the internet to bring people from different backgrounds and beliefs all over the world together.

While it’s not perfect, you can still remain connected to old friends, former classmates, past roommates, etc. through social networking. Instead of bowling leagues, sports clubs, the local YMCA, now we have Meetup.com and Groupspaces. As technology continues to advance, the meaning of ‘community’ will continue to change and adapt to the times. However, we as human beings must not forget the importance of being apart of a community and how much it means to our mental health and overall happiness.

References:

http://www.saddleback.edu/faculty/agordon/documents/Bowling_Alone.pdf

http://www.newsweek.com/2014/10/03/volunteering-america-decline-272675.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/17/us-usa-boyscouts-idUSKBN0KQ05O20150117

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