Why You Can’t Find Purpose Without Community

The power of community permeates our search for purpose

Belonging to a community increases our courage, improves our health, and accelerates learning. At its core, it offers meaningful, even spiritual, connection, which is fundamental to our search for purpose.  A generation ago, cultivating community took little effort. Today it requires wading through inauthentic interpretations that rebrand the concept as consumer fan clubs, co-working spaces, and Facebook groups.

It is often hard to recognize something disappearing when it is deeply integrated into human life. Yet, the community’s role in our lives is weaker than ever.

Traditionally, our communities formed around family, work, and religion. Today, all three of these aspects of our lives are going through profound changes. Driven by the culture of individualism and workism, our families are no longer intergenerational. Our jobs change every two or three years and often require us to move to pursue new opportunities. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people are connected to traditional religious institutions and the communities that stem from them.

Our culture also perpetuates the myth of the self-made person, further eroding the value of a community. And thanks to the supercomputers in our pockets, we are more likely to surf through an endless list of acquaintances on Facebook and Instagram than to engage in a 20-minute conversation with a close friend. Many of us don’t even know the names of our neighbors.

Too often we strive to solve challenges ourselves. Yet research tells us that isolation is fatal. It impacts our health and not surprisingly, our lifespan. It also costs the U.S. government $7 billion a year in related healthcare costs. And while this is true for both genders, women seem to be better at connecting with others. This ability could be one of the reasons women live seven years longer than men, on average.

Community and purpose are intertwined

Purpose is a sense that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves, that our work and life have a broader meaning. We will not get closer to discovering our purpose if we don’t involve our community in our journey. The foundation of meaning in our lives lies within connections to other people.

The science behind the impact of a community on purpose and success is significant. One study asked participants to stand in front of a hill and evaluate how steep the hill is. It found that if the support network is nearby, the participants’ perception of the hill changes! When you’re standing next to a friend, the hill looks 10-20% less steep to you than when you’re looking at it alone. This means our perception of the difficulty of achieving a goal is directly impacted by the community around us.

The foundation of meaning in our lives lies within connections to other people

The impact of community on our emotional health is powerful as well. James Fowler from UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis from Harvard Medical School found that if you become happier, any friend within a mile radius would be over 25% more likely to become happier, too. Research from Shaun Achor and others reaffirms that this applies not only to happiness but also to creativity, leadership, energy levels and more. Connection and community can enable better outcomes.

Even basic learning improves when we involve others directly in our studying. We learn better when we teach others — rather than just learning it for our own purposes. This is called the protege effect. It means that working to make others better actually improves your own potential. Your success is interconnected with the success of others.

Related: CAMP X: Community, Revelations, and a Deeper Sense of Belonging

The challenge ahead

The facts are there. The challenge today is that a sense of community does not come built-in like it used to. We need to cultivate it with far greater effort.

At Project X, we build that cultivation into our programs by specifically creating opportunities for people to not merely share with one another, but to get vulnerable and ask for help. Participants form accountability groups where they commit on a weekly basis to their goals for the week, check in with one another to ensure their goals are achievable, and hold one another accountable.

A separate community in NYC called BASE has decided to bring a religious community to its neighbors through a rabbinic family gathering rather than through a place of worship, which fewer young people today connect with. Events — from prayer and religious study to preparing food for the homeless — are organized most nights in the home of the rabbi. The community isn’t forming in an ancient brick building, it is forming over food and in the comfort of a family living room.

There are ways to cultivate the communities around you today

While ‘building community’ has been relegated to buzzword status for brands, companies and internet groups, true community is more deliberate and requires bringing your whole, authentic self to the group.

Here are some ways you can start cultivating your own sense of community:

  • Make space: designate one night each week to a community that is important to you. This could be a religious group or a small group of friends you’ve known for years. Texting and liking photos do not equal connection; instead, develop a ritual of getting together that you can commit to weekly.
  • Connect with neighbors: how many of us consistently engage with our neighbors? Make an effort to knock on one door each week. Maybe it’s the same door, or maybe it’s someone new. The point is, no one else is going to initiate this if you don’t.
  • Seek community through shared experience: from adult summer camps to group adventure travel, community is best built when experiencing something new together. For example, the Millennial Trains Project leads train journeys of 10 days across America for diverse groups of young leaders. Camp Empowerment leads retreats for women focused on everything from health and wellness to spirituality. There are endless examples and opportunities for shared experiences.

What other ways do you have for getting in the habit of cultivating community? Let us know in the comments below!

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