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The word “community” is used so often today, it’s reached buzzword status. And when the term is thrown around in countless contexts, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of community—and how to develop communities that add purpose and joy to our lives.
What is community?
So, what exactly is community? In its simplest form, it’s a group of people with something in common. That shared factor could be family, geography, faith, race, or life stage. It could also be an overlapping interest, passion, or profession.
But for a group of people to form a true community that enriches the lives of its members, the individuals involved must also feel a shared sense of trust, connection, and caring for one another.
Why are communities so important?
Strong communities are critical because they’re often an important source of social connection and a sense of belonging. Participating in a community bonded by attitudes, values, and goals is an essential ingredient to enjoying a fulfilling life.
The absence of social connections can have profound effects on our overall health. An early study on the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that loneliness was one of the factors with the greatest psychological impact on people’s health. The impacts of low social connection on health include:
- Elevated risk factors. Studies show people who lack strong social connections are also more likely to suffer from high levels of stress and inflammation, and face higher risk for suicide and early death.
- Chronic disease. Research consistently links the lack of social connectedness with health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, immune disorders and cancer. suicide and early death.
- Mental health. Social isolation can also impact mental health and well-being. Strong social ties are crucial to mental health—they can lower stress and anxiety and help people thrive.
Ultimately, communities give people a supportive group to help them cope with difficult challenges, band together to solve problems, and celebrate life’s lighter moments.
8 types of communities
Communities exist in many forms, both formal and informal. Formal institutions such as faith-based organizations, schools, and governments might be some of the first types of community that come to mind. But informal groups, such as carpools or study groups, often play an important role in our lives, too.
Informal groups in particular are an important resource for individuals who are part of underrepresented groups and may not have access to or feel comfortable in traditional organizations rooted in inequity. For those seeking safe, inclusive spaces, informal gathering places such as barber shops or online forums can become deeply meaningful sources of community.
Because communities can align along many factors, such as location, identity, interests, or organization, you may already belong to several without even realizing it. Some common examples of communities include:
Some towns or neighborhoods are more tightly knit than others, but many people belong to a community that’s formed by virtue of a shared zip code or street. For some, the people you pass on the sidewalk or in the hallway every day might be strangers. But they can also be friends, allies or even people to turn to in times of trouble.
- Faith-based organizations
A group of individuals united by religious or spiritual beliefs is a longstanding community institution. Whether they meet in a church, synagogue, temple, or online, faith-based organizations may be one of the most easily recognizable forms of community because of their history, reach, and dense networks.
- Hobby-focused clubs
Cooking, reading, running, music—there are an infinite number of possibilities for groups centered around shared interests. Clubs or groups joined by interest or activity allow members to meet new people and foster newfound or longtime personal passions. The virtual options available make finding and participating in these groups easier than ever.
- Volunteer groups
Volunteering can take many different shapes, from phone banking to cleaning up a park. And volunteer work might be driven by a big national nonprofit organization or a tiny grass-roots effort that started in your own backyard. In any case, people working together on a cause that’s important to them often create a meaningful community.
- Alumni networks
An alumni association or network typically exists in the context of an educational institution, and it combines several layers of shared experiences in one. Members might fondly recall their time on the same campus, the class requirements they all completed or the institutional traditions they participated in. Alumni networks provide social and professional connections long after individuals have graduated.
- Coworking spaces
While they’ve always been more than just a place to work, the traditional coworking space has recently undergone new shifts to become more than a physical space. Modern coworking spaces have evolved in design and approach like this cohort of founders launching places for people of color. Offering both inclusive physical spaces and digital communities, they highlight the importance of community development in the workplace.
- Professional development groups
Career-focused networks exist for nearly every type of job or specialty imaginable, and they can often be a great resource throughout an individual’s professional life. These groups might gather for conferences, offer mentorship or training, explore industry issues and help members achieve their goals. Over time, these communities can serve as a critical form of support and guidance for individuals and even leave a mark on entire professions.
- Employee resource groups
In organizations, an employee resource group (ERG) is an employee-led group that fosters inclusivity and builds community. The purpose of an ERG is to create a safe, supportive space for underrepresented employees who share a common identity, and they may be organized by certain shared characteristics like gender identity, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or age. As a community, ERG members and organizational decision-makers work to create an inclusive company culture, connection, and personal and professional growth.
Importance of communities and mental health
In recent months, the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of community as it relates to mental health. As feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression have increased during the pandemic, many people are seeking meaningful connections to help them cope—and that’s one of the most vital functions communities perform.
Communities are inherently about relationships with others and a feeling of connectedness, which have a major impact on mental health. Without community, people may feel more isolated and lonely.
One of the ways we can strengthen our mental health is by building community and creating the social connection and support to have more vulnerable conversations. By creating spaces where open dialogue is safe and encouraged, people can deepen their understanding of one another, work together to address challenges, and find the support they need to navigate tough times.
8 benefits of communities
- A support network
As a member of a community, you have access to a support network of peers. Whether you turn to your community to commiserate, seek advice, or simply share your story, having a supportive group in your life can have a powerful effect on your overall well-being.
- Professional development
Members of a profession-based community can help drive growth and performance. ERGs in particular can develop internal leaders, educate employees, and have a positive impact on retention for members of underrepresented groups.
- Sense of purpose
With a secure sense of belonging comes a sense of purpose, something people are increasingly searching for due to the pandemic. Belonging and purpose can help increase feelings of solidarity and fulfillment, which can be important both personally and professionally. And a strong sense of purpose can even help you live longer.
- Alleviate stress
Communities can be a source of joy! Coming together physically or virtually, finding points of connection with others, and enjoying moments of celebration and camaraderie can leave us feeling engaged and refreshed. Those positive feelings may help lower stress and anxiety.
- New inspiration and ideas
Immersing yourself in a group of individuals exposes you to a diversity of ideas, viewpoints, and personalities. There’s bound to be something new to learn or an unexpected thought to appreciate from your fellow members.
- Empowered decision-making
An empowering environment comes out of mutual trust and respect, which speaks to the importance of community development. In a strong community, where people have opportunities to build each other up and develop trust, people feel greater confidence and engagement within the organization and on an individual level.
- Better communication skills
Effective communication requires connecting to others, a key pillar of a community. Developing relationships with fellow community members is an exercise in listening and building meaningful rapport.
- Greater resilience
Resiliency is a quality impacting the way people respond to and manage change. Belonging to a community offers a form of support that provides a buffer against the stresses on resilience.
Start building your communities
Communities can take many different shapes, and they’re formed on the basis of all kinds of commonalities—including shared interests, geography, or identity.
At their best, being part of a group provides social connections, friendship, and practical and emotional support. They can help us see the world in new ways and provide needed perspective.
Community involvement can enrich the lives of the people on your teams and help individuals overcome the obstacles in their way.
We all need community. You can show the importance of community to your teams through your own example. Start looking for ways to get involved with the communities in your life.
Not sure where to start? The beauty of communities is that you can contribute just by participating. Just showing up can enrich your life, the lives of others, and build more resilient organizations and societies.