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.
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.”
How can you nurture meaningful belonging in a community?
Manage your own expectations
As Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad identifies, loneliness occurs at the point in which the level of connection we desire doesn’t quite match up with that which we receive but as Karin suggests, “perhaps the discrepancy is due to our unrealistic expectations.” She urges anyone to ask themselves: what are the stories you are scripting about your experience? Are they true? Are they connected to the present, or are you reenacting some pain from the past? Furthermore, not all communities will feel beneficial and recognising that is key. “Sometimes, communities need to be left behind, they no-longer serve us, nor we them,” she adds.
Work with your fear
It’s totally normal to feel a certain level of anxiety or nervousness about joining a particular group or community, you can’t let that fear become your barrier to engagement.
As Dr. Brene Brown notes in Braving the Wilderness, it’s our innate fears that cut us off from others. Of course, fear can be helpful if it warns us of impending danger but other times, fears can be self-manufactured and feel incapacitating. “In her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Dr. Susan Jeffers in her book emphasizes that everyone feels fear when trying something new, the difference between those who succeed is that they learn how to move through the fear to get to where they wish to be,” Karin adds.
To truly thrive in a group setting and benefit from the power of community, it’s vital to present your truest, most honest self, even if that means revealing our messiness. “To have meaningful belonging, we need to give ourselves permission to be authentic and not see differences as judgments against us,” Karin explains.
“Similarities are important for a sense of group identity, but healthy communities also celebrate the ways group members are different and are open to learn from and influence each other.”
“A curious mind can open doors for connection as well as expand our own experience,” Karin reveals. “Healthy community should enlarge us, not constrict, and a wide range of experiences – from shared grief to celebration and joy – should all be a part of the mix.”
Share in an experience
“We feel connected when we share an experience. This could be a joint project, such as fundraising, supporting each other in recovery or simply through something like lock-down together,” Karin says.
“A retired psychologist friend of mine shared that he felt the best advice he could give his clients about connecting to others in a group was to be the stranger you wish to meet”, Karin remembers. “To take that risk to be the first to reach out, and to do it warmly, as you would wish someone to reach out to you. Don’t wait, just do it.”
Community and communication at New Life Portugal
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.”
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.”
Want to know more about our approach and how we can help here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat? Click here.