An little-known determining factor of our health is the level to which we have strong community in our lives. According to the World Health Organization, overall health is tied to much more than regular visits to the doctor:
“Whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment. To a large extent, factors such as where we live, the state of our environment, genetics, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family all have considerable impacts on health, whereas the more commonly considered factors such as access and use of health care services often have less of an impact.”
Organizations all over the world are focusing on community development and community building as a way of increasing overall health. Studies also show that we can personally benefit our own health by turning our attention toward nurturing relationships and building community in our lives. This is turn, increases our overall health and enhances our own bodies’ abilities to return to health when we are affected by illness or injury.
A lot of our collective data on community building and communal relationships comes from the work of Dr. M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and best-selling author from 70s, 80s, and 90s. He conducted community building social experiments and wrote about his findings for three decades. He was also a founding member of the Foundation for Community Encouragement, which is still holding workshops and social experiments all over the world today.
Dr. Peck has a famous quote that is repeated often: “In and through community lies the salvation of the world.” There is a growing awareness of an epidemic of physical disconnect created by our busy lives, spread out geography, and distractions that many believe community itself can help cure.
Peck wrote that we are all called to be individuals—not independent or codependent, but interdependent. While we are each unique and amazing as individuals, and we are healthiest when we are completely ourselves, we must also acknowledge that we can do very little all by ourselves. In Dr. Peck’s words: “We are called to wholeness and simultaneously to recognition of our incompleteness; called to both individuation and interdependence.”
Dr. Peck’s team found that community can happen by accident or by design in many different time periods and environments, as long as all of the components are there. So, what are those components? Community requires that the participants have:
1.) Learned to communicate honestly with each other
2) Established relationships that go deeper than the mask of composure
3.) Made a commitment to see each other through the good and bad
The basic concept at work is with communication. Community and communication come from the same root word. Community requires that the participants use good communication practices: Truth telling, attentive listening, and respect. Community also requires that the social masks we don in such settings—the big smile, bright eyes, best behavior masks—all must be left at the door. If there is no vulnerability, there is no community.
But when true community is built, it brings profound good into our lives, such as:
Inclusiveness: In community, all are welcome. Everyone who comes to the door gets a seat at the table.
Realism: When a variety of viewpoints are vocalized, there is the potential for far more realistic conclusions and decisions.
Awareness: Communities examine themselves. How are we doing? Are we still on target? Are we still a healthy community?
Safe Space: When we are allowed to let down all defenses, our natural thrust toward health is fully released.
In their research, Peck’s team also found that there is a somewhat mystical part of community, an essence in the atmosphere, unseen but palpable, that came with its development. Participants tended to describe it as a spirit of love and peace. And this was perhaps the most healing aspect of all.
As we focus not only on good food and healthy lifestyle choices, let’s not neglect our need for community and seek it out with those around us.