Community and communication for mental health. The term ‘community’ is used a lot in our contemporary vocabulary and its definition is rooted in shared experiences. “A community is typically a group of people who share values, beliefs, experiences and norms,” explains psychologist and New Life Portugal Program Director, Karin Bleecker, M.S. “It is someplace you feel others ‘get’ you, and where you matter; and because of this, community can be very powerful for healing.”
There’s no denying the warm glow you feel when you realise you’re truly part of something, whether that’s a local group, a club based in a shared interest or even a work team successfully working towards the same goals. “Community is a key component to happiness and mental wellbeing, and an antidote to loneliness,” Karin explains.
She notes 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous as a good example of a supportive community that can benefit its members’ mental health.. “This is a community of individuals who have a shared experience (feeling life is unmanageable, misuse of substances) and values (sobriety) which enables its members to feel others ‘get” them and that their absence matters.”
But communities aren’t always so formalised. “A sense of community can be small, as in neighbours in an apartment building or even a family, or large friendship group,” Karin adds. We also regularly refer to certain groups of people with shared lives experiences as a community, for instance, the LGBTQ+ community. Further still, we’re all part of a global community. “Most of the world has experienced the pandemic, a very significant shared experience that has increased our awareness of being part of a global community,” she explains. “Knowing we are not alone in an experience provides resilience to the potentially negative impact of that experience.”
What are the mental health benefits of feeling part of a community?
To really understand the benefits of being part of a community, it’s important to look at the distinction between being part of a community and simply being a member of a group. With an inclusive sense of belonging, mutual understanding and shared experiences, communities can provide emotional and mental support. Community and communication for mental health is very important.
It’s a common misconception that to suffer from loneliness you must always be on your own but that simply isn’t true. “The saying ‘feeling lonely in a crowd’ expresses a truism we can probably all relate to; just being with a group of people doesn’t necessarily mean we feel connected, but on the flip side, nor does being alone mean we are feeling lonely,” Karin explains. “For instance, we can be on a wellbeing retreat and spend a week intentionally isolated and find this very pleasant.”
A sense of community, as opposed to belonging to a particular group, builds a real feeling of comfort and solidarity that can help ease the symptoms of loneliness.
“During Covid, many of us have experienced mandatory isolation,” Karin flags. “This may or may not have been difficult for us depending on many factors, such as temperament and particular circumstances.” She highlights the work of Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist and leading researcher on loneliness. She describes ‘social isolation’ as “objectively being alone, having few relationships or infrequent social contacts; whereas loneliness refers to subjectively feeling alone, or the discrepancy between one’s desired level of connection and one’s actual level”. Furthemore, her research flags the extreme effects of loneliness, in that it increases your chances of dying by over 45%.
When you’re a part of a community, even if physical contact is at an all time low, you’re often able to unlock a sense of ‘meaningful belonging’. Described by Karin as “not just being a name or number in a group”, it’s the real defining reason that community experience can help tackle loneliness.
So what actually is meaningful belonging? In a recent article for The Atlantic entitled The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic, Arthur C Brooks (who teaches a class on happiness at Harvard Business School) summarises the work of thousands of academic studies with this:
“Enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life. In other words, happiness comes from a life with ‘meaning’”. It’s about mindful living and operating with purpose.
Karin also highlights the words of Emily Esfahani Smith. “Her summary of happiness research is that the more meaning people experienced in life was determined by whether they had a sense of direction, felt they had something to contribute and that they belonged to a community or social group.” We believe in Community and communication for mental health.
How can you nurture meaningful belonging in a community?
Community and communication for mental health
Here at New Life Portugal wellbeing retreat, we consider community to be our ‘secret sauce’.
“Despite the nervousness that often comes with joining a new group, when we ask people, ‘what was the most powerful component of your time at NL?’, the answer is almost always ,the community’, Karin reveals. “They describe a sense of belonging that allows them to reconnect and practice being themselves.” We believe in community and communication for mental health.
Although the guests that arrive at the retreat all have different stories, they are united in their hunt for a calmer, more mindful approach to life.
“The fact that there are so many similarities in how we all suffer creates a kind of normalising that removes barriers and shame and highlights the shared experience of our humanity,” Karin explains. We provide ample opportunity to not only hear the stories of others, but to share your own.
“Listening to each other’s stories helps nurture our capacity for empathy and understanding, and to learn to receive and benefit from the support of others while building bridges and reducing a sense of loneliness.”
For example, Life Story, our weekly event, invites guests and staff to tell their story through whatever medium feels right to them. That could be through photographs, poetry, movement, or music and the story could be about anything, from a journey through trauma to a celebration of change.
If the thought of large scale sharing feels uncomfortable to you, do not worry. There are so many ways to connect and communicate with the community here at New Life Portugal. “Working meditation, which is both a mindfulness practice and form of community service, can provide a more intimate way of communicating,” Karin flags.
“Working side by side with someone, say raking leaves or harvesting vegetables, with a contemplative mindset is a sweet condition in which to slowly get to know someone else, and to practice revealing yourself a little at a time.
It frequently results in getting to know someone from another culture or part of the world and being curious about the commonalities we all share as well as the differences. These experiences have resulted in long-term friendships for many of our guests.”
Finally, some of our retreat pathways include what we call process groups. These are a place in which you can practice communicating what is happening to you in the present moment.
“A facilitator gently guides that process and crosstalk and advice giving is discouraged,” Karin explains. “It is a form of practicing authenticity which increases the chances of being truly seen by another, and thus feeling a deep sense of meaningful belonging which increases our resilience and promotes healing.”