Community is an idea that’s hard to pin down. It differs for each individual person, and may be as small as an immediate family or as large as a city. “A community is a group of people we lean on when times are tough; our friends, family, and neighbors who are there for us when we need love, support and encouragement,” according to WebMD. This definition applies for America’s steadily growing aging population, for whom community is vital to maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health as we age.
The idea of community has transformed over the years in interesting ways. It has expanded beyond one’s local church or neighborhood to include vast online communities, virtual support groups, and even philanthropy organizations that inspire meaningful social bonds. Digital technology has facilitated more social networks than we ever thought possible, expanding our idea of community to include support groups on social media channels, victim advocacy websites that offer support to community members, parenting blogs filled with advice for America’s families, and much more. The online community platform Lotsa Helping Hands identifies that “While there is certainly great value in these virtual communities, there is even greater value when folks come together to share not just similar interests or ideas, but when we share in each other’s lives.”
The benefits of social connections have been proven time and time again by scientists studying longevity. Being part of a community means more opportunities for getting out of the house, staying active, and being challenged to try new things. And this can be life-changing for people who would otherwise become lonely and socially isolated, leading to a health decline. According to studies on social interactions done by sociologists Brent Simpson and Robb Willer, “These exchanges promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens our ties to others—and research has shown that having positive social interactions is central to good mental and physical health.” And if promoting good health weren’t enough of a reason to participate in communities, the social connections fostered in these groups can also lead to overall improved quality of life.
Being surrounded by encouraging individuals and loved ones can chemically alter mood. In fact, physical touch and eye contact have been proven to alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. According to UCSD School of Medicine, researchers have been conducting a clinical trial to study the brain hormone oxytocin, which is released when physical touch is shared between people. Kai MacDonald, MD and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, said that “Oxytocin is sometimes called ‘the love hormone. It’s said that the eyes are the window to the soul...they certainly are the window to the emotional brain. We know that eye-to-eye communication, which is affected by oxytocin, is critical to intimate emotional communication.” Therefore, embracing physical support from others can allow us to be more open about difficult emotions. And having loved ones and friends close by to offer advice may help us get through some of the more difficult transition periods in our lives.
The truth is, we all need community. Whether we are eight or eighty years-old, we rely on others to lift us up in times of hardship and celebrate with us in times of triumph. We are connected not only by ideas and common interests, but by the biological need to band together. A necessity for community is at the core of everything we do in life, and it’s up to us to define the communities we associate with in this ever-changing world.
Who do you consider to be a part of your community? Your family? Your city? Or is it a more complicated mixture of friends, family, loved ones, acquaintances, and online networks sharing common interests to your own? Whatever your answer, take note of their importance in your life and do your best to nurture your community with active participation and continuing support. The benefits you receive will be far greater than the efforts you put in, as you gradually feel happier and healthier, connected to a community in need of the unique contributions you can provide.
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