Can you have a fulfilling life without strong connections to the larger community? You may be healthy, wealthy, happy and content, but without a social network, life would feel a bit empty.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was published in 2000. The author, Robert Putnam, concluded that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. Putnam argued that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. So here we are seventeen years later. What’s the scorecard?
Does our sense of community decline with each passing generation? If so, that puts us in a downward spiral leading to the collapse of nations. Rather than blaming the loss of community on youth, let’s explore three other factors that may contribute to this phenomenon.
I love (and hate) Facebook. I love connecting with long-time friends and keeping tabs on current friends, but it’s a time zapper. How many hours do you spend scrolling through Facebook posts? And then there’s the issue of “unfriending” someone. Yes, I’ve unfriended people, and now my Facebook circle is filled with folk who share similar views. In other words, social media reinforces my philosophy and approach to life. Consequently, my Facebook “friends” are rather similar in terms of values.
Younger generations, who don’t use mom and dad’s old-fashioned Facebook platform, are besieged by social media. The number of “likes” defines popularity. And then there’s the problem of “cyberbullying.” Over half of adolescents and teens reported being bullied online and bullying others online. For many young people, social media “friends” have replaced real friends. Eric Pickersgill has a series of poignant photographs called ‘Removed’, in which he removed people’s cell phones from photos to demonstrate our alienation from one another. We can’t blame social media in its entirety, but it plays a strong role in the deterioration of our conversation skills and our ability to connect with others.
I’ve lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, California, Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau calculates a mover rate of almost 12 percent of the population moving from one place to another in a single year. As you might have guessed, most people move to take advantage of educational or job opportunities. I know that’s certainly true in my case. And I admit: I had few, if any, substantial connections to most of the communities in which I’ve lived. I never planned on staying in any of them, so why make those connections?
Geographic mobility brings up another issue – the widening gap between rural and urban America. Many small towns, facing a dwindling population, have to use innovative strategies to keep main streets afloat. While small towns often have a strong sense of “community,” their lack of diversity can instill an “us” versus “them” mentality. In consequence, our sense of “community” can be warped by racial, ethnic, and religious undertones. Over time, that’s a dangerous recipe that incites animosity toward people who do not share similar backgrounds or values.
Community activism can fundamentally change society – when the facts are agreed upon. When we attack science and deny obvious facts, we do harm to community building efforts by limiting conversation. It’s impossible to debate an issue when people cling to irrational notions of “the truth.” Have we done such a poor job of educating our population that so many people do not understand scientific processes and the difference between empirically-based facts and belief-based myths?
Not only do we contend with regular attacks on science and facts, but it feels like we live in an age of dysfunctional state and federal governments, characterized by self-serving agendas that only exacerbate differences between parties. In too many cases, the hateful rhetoric encourages deep animosity in the population, often based on gender, race, language, education, income, and immigration status. We are replacing facts with lies that serve special interests and divide communities.
I’ve painted a very dire picture, and if you’ve made it this far, you might even feel depressed about our future. But I don’t want to ruin my reputation as an optimist, so let’s get down to work. What can you do as an individual to build a stronger sense of community? A community that promotes empathy and kindness and brings happiness to your life. As someone who has moved from place to place and disconnected for long periods of time, here’s my advice.
Create a community that goes beyond your neighborhood, town, city, and state. Perhaps you have a national or international network of professional acquaintances who become your friends? That’s your community, and you can make additional connections through conferences and events. And even though I’ve lambasted social media, you can use your apps to connect with like-minded people. Maybe your geographic community isn’t very supportive of your views or lifestyle? In those cases, social media can be a positive outlet. Just don’t replace real friendships with the façade of Facebook “friends.”
In the past, I used long hours at the office and the demands of motherhood as reasons for not joining groups. Admittedly, it’s easier being a joiner now that my child is an adult. Joining groups has a lot in common with dating – you have to try out several before you find a winner. I have one group in particular that has helped me build strong friendships and connect to my local community and environment: the Virginia Master Naturalists. If you can’t find any interesting groups to join in your community, think outside the box. For instance, I have a friend who is into theme parks and has made a wide circle of connections through Theme Park Review. Whatever your interests may be, there’s a group for you.
We live in a diverse and rich world. Travel knocks down barriers and gives us empathy for people of backgrounds different from our own. Whether you travel within the country or internationally, it’s important to breathe in the local culture and appreciate the exotic. And travel can lead to new friendships, new hobbies, and new connections that only enrich your sense of community.
“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was a popular phrase in the 1960s hippie culture. We can reclaim our lives by turning off our mobile devices, tuning out the rhetoric that divides our country, and dropping in on social groups and activities. Make connections to your community and you’ll be all that much richer from your efforts.