Today’s post is the first in a series of articles on what I call the Four Building Blocks of Wellness: Mindfulness, Movement, Nutrition and Community. Community is a subject I talk of often, and I’m starting there because the past year has really drove home how important community really is.
My mother had a strong network of friends. She was the social one of my parents. My dad used to say that when she went into a grocery store, she would walk out with three new friends. She knew the importance of community.
My dad, not so much. More likely, when he wasn’t working, you’d find him in his workshop, putting together his newest project, or building some new thing my mom came up with. He cherished my mom, so he was pulled into her influence and had an active social life as well.
All that changed when mom got in a car accident on the highway and never left the hospital. They had been married over forty years and dad seemed … lost. I was fairly young at the time, in my early 30s, and lived about 7 hours away and my siblings were no closer, so we weren’t there to offer our support and keep him busy. He worked for a time at the local grocery store in the small town where he lived, but soon developed colon cancer, had surgery and quit working.
In the meantime, I moved out of state. I finally convinced my dad to move into the house next door to us. Looking back, that might not have been the best solution, as a couple years later, cancer again hit and this time with a vengeance. Eight months later, he was gone.
In his new home, my family was his only community. He didn’t really know anyone else, never got out to socialize. I would spend as much time as I could with him, and he ate with us every night, but I was busy working and taking care of three energetic kids.
Would things have gone the same way if he had a strong network of friends in his life? While we will never know the answer, studies show a strong connection between community and wellness.
Community is one area that successful aging is dependent on and researchers have found that our connections to others are instrumental, essential even, to our happiness. That equates to increased health and longevity. In fact, social interactions rank right up there with your drinking and smoking habits as one of the important predictors of longevity.
Community is one reason why, statistically, women live longer in our country. Women tend to have closer social networks that they cultivate over lifetimes. It’s also a contributor to low rates of dementia in those areas of the world that are socially engaged.
Now I know what you extroverts are thinking – us introverts are at a disadvantage here. Well, let me address that briefly. As an introvert myself, I find the subject fascinating and have done much research on it. While you extroverts may think we don’t like to interact with others, or we’re just plain shy, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We just find large groups of people overwhelming, but we love to share in small groups. It’s all about how our brain processes information and too much stimulus is exhausting to us.
That said, for you introverts out there, it can be easy to just hole up in your home or office all day and become a hermit – I know that from personal experience. Make an effort to connect with your community. Call a friend for tea or lunch, join a book club, just be sure to be around others regularly. It doesn’t have to be in a big crowd, just enjoy real live, face-to-face interactions with a few good friends.
Now, this year has been especially challenging to cultivate community. I am so very grateful for the technology that keeps us connected, and while we may all suffer from Zoom fatigue, it’s been a great substitute when we couldn’t meet in person.
Bottom line: Build and sustain your community. Your health and happiness depends on it.