Are you a member of a book group? A walking group? A church or choir? Here’s why you might feel particularly happy if you are.
Everyone knows exercising and eating well are key to good health but more recently, research has established the irrefutable importance to our physical wellbeing of regular social interaction and a healthy sense of belonging. Research also shows that loneliness and social isolation are as harmful to our health as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. What’s more, people who make new social group connections develop a resilience which means they are less likely to suffer from depression*.
‘We are driven by five genetic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun’ – William Glasser, Psychiatrist and author
There is a real sense of belonging and acceptance – perhaps a feeling of validation too –which comes from being a part of a community. Our identity is shaped not just by who we are as individuals, but by who we associate with. We benefit from the bonds we share with other group members, but also the sense of identity and purpose we gain from spending time with like-minded people, engaged in a common pursuit.
I have a friend who is a member of a group of female campervan owners who love to craft. They knew exactly what to expect upon joining the group so have wonderful weekends away together camping and crafting and wild swimming. Yes, that’s another love they all share! I find it both fascinating and heart-warming that she has been able to locate a community of such kindred spirits with whom to spend her time.
Churches have traditionally provided a powerful sense of belonging for their members. A shared spiritual belief is a bond so strong that if moving to a new area, church members tend to make friends first and foremost in their new congregation. Immediately they know they will be welcomed by people who hold similar values to them.
In the same way that money in the bank means you can better cope with financial setbacks, a broad network of social group memberships means you can better navigate the physical and mental stresses of life. People who maintain and build their social group connections are shown to have greater wellbeing during the transition to retirement or living alone.**
Recently, I heard a radio interview with an older woman about her involvement in the Extinction Rebellion protests. Although she was new to organised civil action, she found a great sense of comradery and shared purpose amongst her fellow protesters. She said she had made many new friends, both young and old, who were drawn together over something they all feel very passionately about – something which unites them as a community and allows them to support one another in a common cause.
‘We are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with other people than when we’re alone’ – Robert Provine, Neuroscientist
I am lucky to live in a village which offers lots of different clubs and societies from lawn bowls to amateur dramatics, Alpha prayer groups to the local Women’s Institute. I feel proud to be a part of that greater community and I love the way the different groups host a calendar of social events running alongside their main raison d’être. The Gardening Society holds shows which are open to everyone three times a year; the Drama Society puts on performances for the whole village to enjoy and the 800th anniversary of the parish was celebrated with a traditional village fair on the local sportsground organised by a myriad of small community groups.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be a physical community. There is a huge array of online communities for people with shared interests. Have you heard of the online book club, Poppy Loves Books? Or the Clandestine Cake Club for people who love to bake? What about the Ecclesiological Society for people who love church history and architecture?
It is in our make-up, a very essence of being human, that we are naturally drawn together to find comfort and friendship in being a part of something bigger than ourselves. It is hardly a surprise then, that fulfilling this instinctive pursuit is also so profoundly good for our physical health!
*Campaign To End Loneliness
**World Economic Forum – Global Agenda