Humans are social creatures, but we’re increasingly becoming less social. A variety of reasons can explain it. The prevalence of smartphones means we’d rather look at a palm-sized screen than in another human’s eyes. Social media makes it easier to communicate digitally than in person.
The definition of community has shifted within the past few decades — and people are still adapting. No matter how you define it, though, there are plenty of reasons to value community.
What is a Community?
A community, at its core, is comprised of multiple individuals connected by some common characteristic, goal, or purpose. These people are often spatially close to each other in some way, either physically, such as in a person’s physical town, or digitally, such as on an online FaceBook group.
It is a universal human characteristic to find people with similar characteristics to them. Communities form proto-societies that we see today. Whether it’s a small tribe of Homo sapiens moving north out of Africa some 60,000 or 70,000 years ago or an online messaging board for Pokemon enthusiasts, humans need a community to thrive.
While humans are social creatures, a group of humans is not the same as a community of humans. Humans can be grouped together for a variety of reasons. Take people riding in a subway car, for instance. The people are grouped together in a common purpose — to ride the subway and get to where they need to go. But they are not a community of people.
A community implies that the members of it have developed relationships with other members. The people in the community know each other and are willing to engage and support other members, which is why local community arts centers allow people who like art to find each other and connect platonically.
Like-minded people need to talk to each other and spend time with each other. It’s not simply enough to be in proximity to someone who looks like you or believes what you do. You have to feel like those other members like you, and that you belong in the same space with them.
Why Community is Important
It Saves Us from Isolation
Because humans are social creatures, isolation brings real, tangible pain.
Scientific research finds that chronic loneliness leads to worse health outcomes — and even be deadly.
One study from researchers based in the University of Chicago found that chronic loneliness can lead to hardened arteries, which can lead to worse cardiovascular outcomes.
This is because the body’s blood vessels need to be soft and dilated, which allows blood to flow through the veins with minimal pressure. When the arteries harden, that stiffness narrows the amount of space in which blood can flow through the veins.
If you’ve ever held a water hose and squeezed your hand around the opening, you see that the water rushes out at a higher rate, and the same is true in the blood vessels.
Blood rushes through the body at a higher rate when the arteries are hard and narrow, which raises blood pressure. And high blood pressure has been shown to contribute to cardiovascular diseases such as coronary artery disease and even heart attacks.
The research from the University of Chicago also suggests that loneliness can lead to inflammation in the body and even lead to learning and memory problems.
Not only that, but the immune system can change in socially lonely people, according to the University of Chicago study. These immune changes are thought to be because of what happens in a person’s genes. Researchers observed that the kinds of genes in a lonely person’s immune systems were different from the genes of a sociable person.
The genes overexpress in lonely individuals, which leads to an immune system activation of inflammation. Key genes were under-expressed as well, such as those that lead to antiviral responses and antibody production. In other words, a lonely person’s immune defenses fall, leading them susceptible to disease invaders.
You can’t feel high blood pressure, which is why the American Heart Association calls it a “silent killer.” You also can’t feel what’s happening in your genes. But you can feel loneliness as if it were a physical pain.
Research shows that the human brain processes loneliness as physical pain. This could be an evolutionary adaptation. If being alone physically hurts you, you’re likely to find a tribe of people to be with, which would improve your chances of survival since you can all help each other eat and protect each other from predators.
But social scientists have remarked over and over that we are in a “loneliness epidemic.” It goes beyond psychological pain — loneliness is hurting our society.
The Negative Consequences of Loneliness
It’s estimated that 60 million adults, or nearly one-fifth of the population, feel the pain of loneliness every day.
There’s a variety of reasons why people feel lonely. One reason is that when someone grows older, their friend group begins to shrink. This could be due to age-related death or deaths from other causes. Another is that people’s family members tend to move away as they grow older.
People tend to retire in their 60s as well, which means they’re not seeing the coworkers and other team members they’ve seen before. People are also turning to social media to feel connected with others, though social media probably does not offer the same benefits as being physically near a human or speaking in-person with another individual does.
Whatever the case is, lonely adults die quicker than social adults — which is enough of a reason to make people want to find a community of their own.
Worse Heart Health
Those who don’t have a strong social network are more likely to die from heart disease. Some studies find that loneliness poses a comparable risk to the heart as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even smoking cigarettes.
To put that into perspective, smoking cigarettes doubles your risk of a heart attack. Not only that, but smoking cigarettes triples the risk of a stroke, raises the risk of angina (or chest pain) 20-fold, and raises the risk of developing peripheral heart disease, or narrowed blood flow to your limbs, by 5-fold. All of this is according to the Heart Foundation.
And cardiologists are constantly working to lower people’s blood pressure and cholesterol because of the heart disease risk those two factors pose. So the fact that loneliness can be as dangerous as smoking cigarettes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol is a big deal.
Chronic loneliness manifests itself into a kind of chronic stress. When you’re lonely, you’re constantly looking at ways to assuage that loneliness because it doesn’t feel good. When you look at the compounding effects of loneliness over days, weeks, months, and years, it can lead to tangible mortality risks compared to those who are social and loneliness free.
So while you should be living a heart-healthy lifestyle of frequently exercising, eating a low-salt diet, staying away from smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, keeping your weight down, and reducing chronic stress from, say, work, you should try to be as social as possible for the benefit of your heart.
You can probably imagine how being lonely would make you feel sad. It’s easy to justify loneliness with personal flaws. People don’t like being near you, you’re too odd to keep friendships, and other relationships could be a few reasons you come up with. As a result, those who are lonely are more likely to develop depression — and the science backs it up.
Those who are lonely experience more depressive episodes, according to research from the University of Chicago and Duke University. Common depressive symptoms include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, loss of interest in activities that used to make you happy, slow thinking and body movements, reduced appetite, and frequent thoughts of death.
The association between loneliness and depression stays stable throughout someone’s lifetime, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a teenager or an elderly person. Loneliness can lead to depression. Depression, then, and further your loneliness since you often don’t have the energy to go out and find people to mingle with.
Loneliness and depression is a vicious cycle that furthers your feelings of pain, sadness, and isolation. When you’re depressed and lonely, it’s hard to find which ailment to treat first, and so you may feel like the snake who’s eating its own tail.
The link between depression and loneliness is another reason why community is so important. When you have more people to be with and hang around, you start to feel less alone. It can reduce depressive symptoms and get you back to feeling like your normal self.
Social skills need constant upkeep. If you haven’t been socializing for a while, you might feel like you lack the necessary skills to make good impressions on people. Not only that, but since it’s been so long since you’ve socialized, you might place more pressure on the social time you have because you need it to assuage your loneliness.
This increased apprehension of social events is a sign of social anxiety. It can manifest into a trepidation to talk to strangers, entering rooms, going to parties, and starting conversations. Social anxiety makes you afraid that people will judge you, that you’ll embarrass yourself or be humiliated in front of others, that you’ll accidentally offend someone.
As a result of developing social anxiety, you can fear talking to new people and making friends. You could also be afraid of meeting with the people you’ve already become friends with because you’re afraid of negative outcomes.
Kind of like with depression and loneliness, social anxiety can exacerbate the loneliness you already have. You want to engage with people badly, but because you’re afraid of bad outcomes, you’d rather stay in your comfort zone and avoid meeting people. This makes you feel lonelier, which makes you fear social occasions further, and so forth.
Social anxiety is tough to deal with, but there are ways to get over it. One way is to constantly remind yourself that even if you feel like you said something stupid to someone you just met and that they think you’re an idiot, it’s not the end of the world. You were physically not harmed in the process, and in a couple of days, they won’t remember what you said anyway.
No matter how things go when you talk to people, you will be okay.
The second solution to social anxiety is to seek therapy if it’s particularly brutal. An effective therapist could pinpoint the causes of your social anxiety and work with you to unravel them. Not only that, but they can give you actionable tips to employ for when you’re feeling anxious in social settings, which can help you overcome your fear and connect with people.
Third, you can find a community of people who are also anxious. Perhaps as a result of social anxiety, lots of these communities are online. But you can find Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media groups of people who understand what you’re going through. You can ask people about their experiences with social anxiety and seek tips on how to survive your own.
Perhaps you can even find people in your town or city from these online groups and meet up in person if all parties are comfortable enough. Finding people who experience the world the way you do and struggle with what you struggle with is why communities help people feel less alone.
Worse Eating Habits
There is a connection between loneliness and overeating. Mainly, the lonelier you are, the more likely you are to overeat.
This could be because eating is a pleasurable act. When you eat food, especially food high in sugars and fats, your brain releases dopamine — the brain chemical that’s often associated with the brain’s reward center.
You crave that dopamine because it feels good. And since you’re not feeling good from feeling constantly lonely, that dopamine is offsetting the pain you feel in day to day life.
So to get a bigger dopamine hit, you’re likely to crave lots of food. Food, essentially, becomes a drug to make you forget how bad you feel, and it’s a reason why food addiction is so prevalent. There are an estimated 70 million adults in the United States with food addiction.
Food addiction and loneliness, then, becomes yet another vicious cycle. You feel lonely, which drives you to eat a lot of food to feel good. Though you may feel good at the moment, food addiction might make you feel ashamed and out of control, which makes you feel like you can’t relate to your peers. That feeling of otherness can drive you to food, which continues the cycle.
Even if you’re not a full-blown food addict, it’s easy to turn to food when we’re feeling lonely and like we lack a community. Food is everywhere and easily available as long as you can afford it. It’s easier to go to the store and grab a pint of ice cream than to go to a bar and talk to someone over a beer. It’s easier to eat than to make a friend, which is why people fall into the former.
There’s hope for you if you have a food addiction. The first is to realize that you’re using food as a way to fill your loneliness. If you don’t recognize that you have a problem and masking bad feelings with bad behaviors, the path to getting your life back together will be a lot harder.
The second is to find a therapist who specializes in helping people with food addiction. Food addiction is similar to drug addiction, but it requires a different touch since food addiction is so common and so easy to get your ‘hit’ from versus drugs. Though you may still benefit from literature and programs seeking to help drug addicts if you’re a food addict.
The third, of course, is to find your community of people. No matter how alone you feel, there are people who understand what you’re going through and are willing to help you. If they’re not in your geographic area, you can find them online.
For example, in the Reddit Forum, there for people who struggle with food addiction. It’s a place where people can post questions for advice, read the anecdotes other people have posted, and find tips on how to get better in their food addiction. Recovery is slow and arduous, but people have done it. If they can do it, you can too.
This community of people with unhealthy eating behaviors can help you find a healthier relationship with food. Even if you don’t quite suffer from full-blown food addiction, you can still find people who understand what you’re going through so that you feel less alone.
More Unhealthy Behaviors
While some people fall into an unhealthy relationship with food, others may fall into other unhealthy habits to cope with their loneliness.
For example, loneliness can lead you to substance abuse. The reason is comparable to why people turn to overeating. Loneliness feels bad, and you seek to mask that bad feeling with something that feels good. That “something” could include alcohol, drugs, or sex.
In the beginning, you might think that the coping mechanism you’ve used for your loneliness, such as alcohol, isn’t a big deal. Lots of people go to the bar to try to talk to people but then end up consuming 12 drinks. It might not be the healthiest behavior, but it’s not uncommon.
But the pleasure you feel from that bad habit continues until you feel dependent on the substance. You find you’re hitting the bar a lot more often than you were before — but it’s okay because you get drunk, and you’re a fun drunk. You talk to people better when you’re drunk. It’s easier to make friends. You feel like you’ve accomplished something, and so you persist.
That continuation means feeling dependent on the substance you abuse. You can’t go a couple of days without binge drinking. You need at least a few drinks every day to feel normal, to feel like you. But that initial pleasure you felt when you first incorporated your substance into your life is gone. It’s an emptier feeling now, and it just feels like you’re sticking a pacifier into your mouth.
But perhaps the worst feeling is the fact that you can’t quit even if you want to. The substance is too ingrained into your life to quit. You have a problem, and that problem makes you feel more isolated from your peers than before.
“Addiction, by nature, isolates people,” writes Addiction Campuses, and it’s true. You can feel disconnected from others or feel like you’re incapable of connecting with other people, either emotionally or physically. You may feel like there’s no one to talk to, or that no one would care if you do. You could feel abandoned and left out of life, or that you’re falling behind.
In short, falling into unhealthy behaviors and developing an addiction can make you feel mad at yourself and hopeless in life. But the good news is that you don’t have to feel that way forever. There are communities of people you can connect with to overcome your unhealthy habits.
Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous are perhaps the most popular ones, but not everyone agrees with the structure of the program or that you need to remain abstinent from your substance to succeed. Abstinence-only training doesn’t appear to work in teenagers, so it might not work in adults either.
Still, you can most likely find groups of people who were or are addicts and try to help each other improve their lives. You can probably find a support group in your town, but you can definitely find some online on platforms such as Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter. You don’t have to feel alone, and you can certainly get control back in your life.
Other Benefits of Community
We’ve talked a lot about how community reduces loneliness and the benefits of feeling less lonely. Since loneliness is such a dangerous feeling, that amount of space is justified. But diminishing loneliness is certainly not the only importance of community.
Feeling Like You Belong
A good community embraces you and makes you feel like you deserve to be a member. It’s there to make you feel like you’re not weird since other people are like you. You’re not an outlier, because there are plenty of other people who prove they’re part of the statistics as well.
As a result, the bonds you form with the people in your community make you feel like you belong there. The community wouldn’t be the same without you. The community is better with you in it. When you feel that way, it’s enough to boost your confidence and utterly crush any feeling of isolation and loneliness.
Finding a Romantic Partner
Another benefit of community is that you can perhaps fall in love with one of the members in it. People tend to fall in love with those who have similar interests to them, so it makes sense that those in a community will have such similar interests.
You’re also spending a lot of time in a community talking to people and interacting with others, which is another ingredient to forming a relationship. Studies show that it takes about 40 to 60 hours with someone to form a casual friendship, 80 to 100 hours with someone to form an actual friendship, and over 200 hours to feel like someone is your best friend.
Of course, you have to click with someone to form a strong platonic bond with them. You’ve spent a lot of time with the people from your high school, but it’s unlikely that you’re friends with all of them.
Still, the amount of time you spend with people in your community adds to the hours it needs to go from acquaintance to friend to best friend. And who knows, the relationship can progress from there.
Leaving a Positive Mark on the World
Lots of communities are based around common interests, and some of those interests could be around beneficial activities. Many church groups, for example, volunteer to help build houses for the homeless or feed people who are food insecure.
When you join a community with service-oriented goals, you help leave the world a better place. And you make friends in it to boot.
Humans need to be near other humans to be healthy. You’ll actually fall sick if you spend too much time by yourself. That’s why community is important — it gets you around other humans, and it helps you build the bonds to bust loneliness and feel connected.
Communities are no longer just physical, you can be a central part of a community just from your phone, so there’s no reason to wait on going out and finding a community today.