Recently I heard someone longing for “the days when a neighbour was a true neighbour and people stuck together.” Historically, people have lived together in formats where survival depended upon everyone working together. In more recent centuries, many people spent their entire lives surrounded by family and lifelong friends, and commonly knew everyone in their area. Life revolved around work, school, church, and community activities were sources of mutual aide, comfort, collaboration, socialization, and accountability; neighbors shared happiness and sadness.  The advent of air conditioning and television, so states one theory, led to people staying home rather than visiting with neighbours, and increased changes in this trend.

The word “community” derived from “common,” means a group of individuals with common attitudes, beliefs, interests, culture or history, following common rules.  The first known use of the word was in the 14th century, to denote people of the same area.  Today’s technology gives us multiple “virtual communities,” where people may never meet in person, yet continue to share traits.  Lives now may include changing jobs, schools, geographical locations, often leaving all familiarity behind. Yet people still yearn for support and association, a sense of shared values and goals, no matter if near or far away.

Community can refer to a neighborhood or people, but it’s all based on interpersonal relationships and is said to require four primary components: membership; needs fulfillment; influence; and emotional connections. Neighborhoods with the highest sense of community reportedly share several qualities: people walk; green spaces and parks are accessible and used regularly; coffee shops, restaurants and other casual meeting places exist with easy access which encourages stopping in; local, independent businesses are supported by neighbourhood inhabitants; art galleries, book stores, and music and cultural venues are available; automobile traffic is neither a frenzy of distraction, nor a deterrent; there is generational diversity and elders are honored; there is a sense of comfort, even affection, and low levels of anxiety.

And we have the (sometimes more complicated) interactions with people that comprise a sense of community.  Every culture and frequently different areas and regions of the same culture, have their own -often unspoken- rules for how best to assimilate.  Even within our own cultures we occassionally blunder and are uncertain, and it’s especially easy to do in other cultures or with diverse, unfamiliar, people. For a time, it may seem temptingly safer to watch from the sidelines, because once we join in, everything changes. Even though people generally want to feel included, it’s sometimes intimidating and often easier not to venture out, and the longer one isolates, the easier it becomes.

But sooner or later, most people prefer a sense of community, yet finding, or creating, the right fit may not always be easy, geographically or interpersonally.  Sometimes one does the best one can, trying eagerly to fit in with new people, and only later, by continuing to reach out, meet others that are a better fit for one’s values and needs.  Take time, if needed, to observe and learn, and base your initial interactions on common courtesies indigenous to the culture or community, and expand your acquaintances with a willingness to give relationships time and attention. Actively look for ways to contribute.

Perhaps the most universally accepted, and easiest, way to greet people is simply to smile, make brief eye contact, or otherwise acknowledge people. Studies show people who acknowledge others, even subtly, as well as those who feel recognized and acknowledged, immediately feel more connected.  This creates a sense of increased openness, helpfulness, collaboration, and value.  Studies also show when people feel left out or ignored, even briefly or over something silly, both their self-esteem and immune system are lowered. Feeling isolated can be daunting, leading to depression, physical risk or illness, and even death.  People with closer relationships, including even small social and community connections, have been shown in studies to live longer than people without close relationships, and who do not feel they belong.

Being part of a community can help people grow emotionally and intellectually, and dependable relationships help us thrive, even in new situations.  Our communities influence us: just as we also have the opportunity to influence our community, through interactions, participation, and continued exploration.  If you are in a position of influence in a community or organization, remember that it’s much easier to lose a sense of community than it is to create one.  If you want people to come to you and to feel comfortable, you must engage them. Respond to their questions and needs. Be approachable, on a human level, not merely as an advertisement for your group. Influence people positively before you network. Everyone wants to know “what’s in it” for them, so offer something appealing.  Make people feel valued.  In new situations or with new people, many are often uncertain or hesitant about joining in, so don’t overlook the importance of simple acts of kindness, encouragement, and inclusion.  We all need compassionate understanding.  The desire to be part of a community is a powerful draw, but if you want people to venture beyond their homes, they need somewhere interesting to go, a sense of appreciation for being there, validation for what they contribute, and something enticing to keep them actively participating. In this month of Amor & Amistad, reach out to someone; enhance your community, yourself, and others around you.