feeling isolated in a crowded world? how to build community in urban areas
“iSolation: A condition of detachment or separation caused by using an iPod with headphones.” Urban Dictionary
Despite the quip, social isolation in urban areas is a serious issue. According the the Australian Community Survey, urban dwellers tend not to experience the strong sense of community that rural dwellers do. This lack of community cohesion and participation can lead to loneliness and other mental health issues, such as depression and stress related illnesses.
I’m not suggesting that isolation and loneliness isn’t a serious issue in rural areas also. The cause, however, is different. For urban dwellers, isolation isn’t geographical; it’s not due to lack of people (or like-minded people) living close by.
Instead, the city lifestyle tends to be more focused on the individual and upward mobility rather than on building community and community participation. The work to consume cycle and the ‘bigger and more is better’ mentality is much more apparent and more reinforced in cities than it is rural areas.
Compounding the issue is the fact that many city dwellers have moved away from their hometowns, their families and childhood friends to study or find employment. When you’ve moved away from everyone you know, it can be difficult to break into existing social circles or to form new social circles with strangers.
If you’ve ever moved to another place, then you know that it’s hard to establish deep connections with people who don’t (yet) know the real you. Those kinds of friendships where you’re comfortable being yourself. Forming friendships takes time and it takes a fair bit of effort as well (particularly if you’re not a social person by nature).
I admit that I’m the type of person who prefers my own company. Solitude is a comfort I like to retreat to; constant society is something I find draining.
The downside of tuning inward like this is that when you are in need of company, you have no network of friends to turn to. Rather than being a choice, solitude can become your prison.
Like anything, balance is important.
So how do you avoid urban isolation? How do you meet new people and form new social circles? The answer is participation.
The positives of participation
Studies have shown that one of the most important ingredients for happiness is connections with other people, family and friends. People with strong relationships are not only happier, but are healthier and live longer.
But it’s not just relationships that make us happy, it’s relationships with happy people. A Harvard study found that happy friends can make you happy. But more surprisingly, happy friends of friends (people you don’t even know) can effect your happiness.
There are two takeaways from this study. The first is that having friends and building good relationships is important for our wellbeing:
“The researchers also found that, contrary to what your parents taught you, popularity does lead to happiness. People in the centre of their network clusters are the most likely people to become happy, odds that increase to the extent that the people surrounding them also have lots of friends.” [source]
The second is that strong relationships are more important than money when it comes to happiness:
“Fowler also points out that these findings give us an interesting perspective for this holiday season, which arrives smack in the middle of some pretty gloomy economic times. Examination of this data set shows that having an extra $5,000 increased a person’s chances of becoming happier by about 2 precent. But the same data also show, as Fowler notes, that ‘Someone you don’t know and have never met — the friend of a friend of a friend — can have a greater influence than hundreds of bills in your pocket.’”
In times of hardship, it would seem that the best thing you can do for yourself is throw a party.
From a frugal (and personal) perspective, nowhere is it easier to get caught up in consumerism as it is living in a city. The emphasis on material wealth and call to buy is everywhere. Focusing on relationships and shifting your emphasis onto being and doing rather than having is not only good for the hip pocket, it’s good for your happiness and for your health.
In other words, measure wealth by the strength of your relationships, not by the size of your house.
The upside of being an urban dweller is that there are thousands of opportunities to participate in your local community, make friends and build relationships.
How to join the community
1. Leave the house
The first step in reducing social isolation is to get out of the house. Often. Go for a walk, sit in a coffee shop or at the park, attend a play or even just sit on the front step.
Just being in public spaces opens up opportunities for human contact, even if it is only giving your order to the waiter.
On the other hand, when you’re at home, let the world in. Open your front door, pull back the curtains and allow a little bit of the world to enter.
In a lot of ways, the more our living standards increase, the more we turn in on ourselves. We build huge cement walls around our houses, we stay inside with the doors closed, we spend more time in our private backyards than we do in our more public front yards, we pretend not to see the person on the neighbouring balcony.
What we can do is embrace the proximity and make the most of it, while still having the option of retreating when we need to.
We live in the first townhouse of fourteen, which means that every other tenant and their visitors have to walk past our front door. And everyone peers in. Always. I guess human curiosity is a strong impulse.
I must have gotten used to it. We keep the front door open most of the time now, day and night. Kids come up and say hello, neighbours wave as they pass by. Such a simple thing has let the world in just a little. You feel that little bit more connected and you always have the option of closing the door when you need to.
2. Use your local facilities
Your local area will have all sorts of publically available spaces and facilities that you can use. The library, parks, art galleries, swimming pools, beaches, national parks, community centres, parenting groups, play groups, civic groups, public transport. These public spaces and facilities are their for you to use and enjoy.
Use these facilities on a regular basis and you soon bump into the same people every time. And this familiarity can be the beginning of acquaintanceship.
3. Smile and say hello
Ok, so you’ve left the house, you’re at the park, now what?
That iconic scene from Crocodile Dundee comes to mind here: where he tips his hat and say ‘g’day’ to everyone he passes in the busy and crowded New York city.
But when was the last time you said hello to a stranger?
I tend to be a shy person until I get to know you (then you’ll be hard pressed to get me to shut up), so saying hello to strangers isn’t one of my strong points. I have a friend who is the opposite: she will make friends with strangers, which is quite a skill.
If you’re also a little shy and unsure about saying hello to strangers, I have learnt this: the key to a good hello is to be decisive and confident. Make eye contact, smile, say hello clearly (not so softly that it can’t be heard, don’t mumble it) and then move on.
It gets easier with practice.
Don’t do it in the CBD at peak hour, but if you’re walking the dog and you pass a neighbour, if you bump into someone in the stair well, if you pass a colleague in the hall, if you’re stuck in a queue at the store, then try give a warm hello.
A little hello goes a long way.
A little hello is all it takes to start something positive. To start a conversation. To start a friendship. To make someone’s day.
The majority of people in the world aren’t out to judge you. They’re not thinking ‘I hope that person doesn’t come near me.’ Instead they’re probably thinking ‘I wish someone would say hello to me.’
Be that person.
3. Ramp up your community involvement by…getting involved
Volunteering and joining interest groups or associations are two great ways to get more involved in your community and to meet new people.
What’s more, you’re meeting like minded people who share similar interests.
So if you’re into the helping the environment, join your local conservation group. If you’re interested in scrapbooking, join a scrapbooking club or class at your local store. Join your local church or your local sports association, your local book club or your local play group.
The thing about hanging out with people with whom you have something in common is that small talk is easier (and if you’re like me, and you find having your teeth drilled without anaesthetic less painful than making small talk, then anything that makes it easier is a boon).
5. Know your local area
Another point that the Australian Community Survey noted was that rural dwellers have a more local focus in that they tend to read the local newspaper, watch the local news and be more interested in local events.
So how do you get to know your local suburb?
- Take an interest in what’s going on around you.
- Keep up with what your local council is doing in your suburb.
- Be a tourist in your suburb. Discover new streets, new places of interest, new parks, new coffee shops.
- Read your local newspaper. Many city suburbs have free newspapers that focus on your suburb only.
- Read you community noticeboards. You usually find these at your local library or supermarket.
- Support a local sports club. If you live in a city, you have the luxury of going to see professional sporting matches, but when you support your amateur club, you’re getting involved in your local community and getting a more personal experience at the same time.
- Become a regular at a local business. There’s nothing like that home coming feeling the staff know your order at your favourite cafe.
6. Share the most important thing that you have
Have you ever noticed that all social barriers, shyness and snobbery fall away in the face of a disaster. It seems strange that we find it easy to communicate with others when disasters occur, only to be socially awkward at other times.
I think the reason is because we know immediately that we can relate with each other based on a shared experience. Sharing something (experiences, values, knowledge, talents, likes and dislikes, hobbies, a cup of coffee, a conversation) is fundamental to building relationships.
I remember when the 2002 Sydney bush fires were threatening our unit. We lived right next to the national park and it was only the highway keeping the fire at bay. That night we sat at the road block with the fire crew and the neighbours and watched the embers blow over onto the trees and our roof, hoping that they wouldn’t catch (with the car packed ready to go, if they did).
All night, people would bring drinks and home cooked meals for the volunteer fire fighters, offering up their homes and their beds to these complete strangers for rest and respite. It’s not true that community spirit doesn’t exist in the city, however, sometimes it takes a disaster to bring it out.
But we don’t need a disaster to grow our community spirit.
My 16 month old son gets this. He is always going up to strangers in the park and giving them gifts: a leaf, a handful of dirt, a rock. He understands innately that sharing something is a great way to start a friendship (yes, I worry about stranger danger, but that’s another story).
The most important thing that you can share with someone else is yourself.
“Friends are the glue that binds cities together” Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), The Nicomachean Ethics
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