How a sense of community makes us think more positively

The courtyard at Kindred

Humans are obsessed with happiness. So much so that we have structured our entire society around the pursuit of it, including coining the concept of positive thinking: if you face life’s challenges with optimism, you can affect positive changes and achieve your goals.

There’s sound logic behind this, but being a perpetual optimist is much easier said than done.

What does it take to move through the world and be hopeful, upbeat, and positive by default? Some answers to this question are specific to you and others are universal truths. Having a sense of belonging and community is one of the latter.

We’re social creatures first

The need to belong has deep roots in the human psyche. Since humans have existed, we have been deeply dependent on our group members: copying skills and practices, learning how to survive, and gaining access to food, shelter, and protection from attack.

This reliance on our peers has significantly shaped our brains, giving us the skills to understand the mental states of others, work and cooperate with others, and to be able to learn from their behaviour.

Feelings of belonging within groups of people can provide stability, and make us feel like we are part of a larger identity with shared values and experiences

If we humans are hardwired to function successfully and to seek acceptance within a group, then this is the foundation from which we can function securely and view the world as a more favourable place.

Belonging gives us a sense of purpose

Academic researcher Eric Klinger in 1998 said that “The human brain cannot sustain purposeless living”, adding his voice to the scores of philosophers who argue that having a meaningful life is a foundational pathway to happiness. In fact, some in today’s field of positive psychology argue that a sense of meaning most strongly and significantly impacts life satisfaction.

Feelings of belonging within groups of people can provide stability, and make us feel like we are part of a larger identity with shared values and experiences. This can motivate us to pursue wider, collective goals (recycling, volunteering at a soup kitchen) and to behave in ways we imagine are ‘for the greater good’.

In 2013, a team of researchers set out to investigate whether a sense of belonging was related to a person’s perception that their life was meaningful, and to no-one’s surprise, confirmed that yes, it absolutely is.

Community support is protective

Consider some of the worst social issues of our time: domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, poverty, and homelessness. While a variety of factors may enable situations like this, one that social workers look for in their assessments is a strong community network.

Support networks have a direct emotional impact on us that helps to enhance our personal resilience to stress

“Having a strong community network would be seen as a protective factor,” says Kindred co-Founder and former social worker Anna Anderson. “Problems emerge in families when they are cut off and alone, and don’t know who to turn to for support. If there was a better, stronger culture of community in this country, a lot of vulnerable people would be more confident to reach out for support earlier.”

Support networks can not only help to relieve particular burdens we’re dealing with, but also have a direct emotional impact on us that helps to enhance our personal resilience to stress and decrease the impacts of trauma.

Isolation and mental health

“The medical and social care professions have long understood the link between social isolation and an increase in mental health issues,” says Anna. “And these issues don’t discriminate. People are often surprised when I tell people I had a fairly even spread of poor and wealthy families on my caseload as a social worker.

“Often, my most severe domestic violence cases were in wealthy families, living in big beautiful London houses, where the women were totally isolated and barely seen. Even though they’d be less than thrilled to have a social worker in their lives, they’d often say they enjoyed my visits as it was the only human contact they got where someone listened to them.”

“A strong, supportive community is incredibly beneficial. Humans need each other”

You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand how isolation, and feeling we don’t belong, can hurt our mental health. Regardless of other factors that might make our lives more secure, and therefore with more headspace for optimism, we can still feel alone and like we don’t matter.

This is precisely why Anna started Kindred: to rekindle a sense of community, particularly within our country’s busy capital. “A strong, supportive community is incredibly beneficial. It makes people more resilient to adversity, it enables them to reach out for support before things get worse, and it helps them feel seen,” she says.

“Humans need each other. Though we think we’re all incredibly advanced and have evolved beyond the need of a community, I would say the steep rise in mental health issues would say otherwise.”

Kindred are temporarily closed during the COVID lockdown but are more committed to our community than ever. We have opened our online community to everyone, with weekly events, check-ins, and opportunities to laugh and connect with each other. While we are closed, we have been touched by messages asking how our community can support us. If you would like to, and are able, learn more about how you can help us during this time.

Monica Karpinski

Monica Karpinski works with Kindred on digital and content strategy, including brand storytelling. She is the Founder & Editor of The Femedic, a media and research platform for women's health, and writes widely on health and gender inequalities.

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