April 1, 2020

Community: A Remedy for Isolation and Loneliness

Forging ahead in life, putting yourself above others and working away to finally owning a private dwelling is what we call ‘living the dream’ in western culture. It’s been proven over and over that this model of a nuclear family architecture is unsustainable and has adversely affected the mental health of entire generations. Is there anything we can do to turn the tides?

Independence In Western Culture

Growing up, your identity and attitude are shaped enormously by the culture around you. In 1984, social psychologist Geert Hofstede proposed a list of cultural dimensions that affect members of a community. His research showed that western cultures, such as North America and Western Europe, have high individualistic cultures while eastern cultures such as China, Japan and Korea have high collectivist cultures.

Western culture prioritizes the needs of the individual above the needs of the group. Independence, self-sufficiency, and success derived from your own merits are values that are drilled into us from a young age. This is effective in the pursuit of individual success, but community and social well-being inevitably fall behind. The antithesis, collectivism, values the needs of the group above the individual. Collectivism is associated with Eastern cultures and focuses on tightly integrated relationships that go beyond immediate family ties.

Modern western architecture is built around the needs of individuals over the collective needs of the group with a focus on a single, nuclear family dwelling. Many suburban construction projects are designed on the basis of easy, cookie-cutter blueprints, with emphasis on quick construction that is cost-efficient. The houses are bland, empty, private dwellings, sold to prospective owners with the mantra of ‘making it your own’. But research has shown that bland, Spartan surroundings have a negative effect on mental health and development as seen in studies by Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb and confirmed in a study by Mark Rosenzweig of UC Berkeley. Additionally, with a focus on the ideal of the single, nuclear family, the desire to forge relationships with neighbors weakens as our individualistic nature pushes us to focus on ourselves and our own immediate family.

As families and individuals are pushed further into isolation, the negative effects of long-term individualism become more severe. English Philosopher Roger Scruton suggested that, even in a world of huge advancements in communication and technology, bland and isolated environments lead to depression, anxiety and loneliness. An environment that doesn’t facilitate socialization between people is detrimental to the emotional, mental and physical well-being of its inhabitants.

Loneliness And Isolation

Loneliness is an epidemic in modern society. Technological advances in communication exacerbate the loneliness and social isolation that many experience. More than 22% of adults in the United States say they always feel lonely or isolated according to a 2018 survey from the Economist. In Canada, 23% of adults feel lonely and isolated. This trend exacerbated by the rise in single-person households up to 28% of all Canadian households according to the 2016 census.

Social isolation triggers adverse reactions in people. A study conducted at UCLA in 2015 found that social isolation triggered cellular changes that resulted in chronic inflammation and poor immune system function. These issues lead to serious physical conditions such as strokes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and severe viral infections. A 2019 study by the American Cancer Society found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death and was more detrimental than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having morbid obesity.

In addition to physical symptoms and complications, mental and cognitive function is severely impaired by chronic loneliness. Loneliness contributes to a 40% increase in the risk of developing dementia. Furthermore, without a support network such as family and friends, lonely people will develop unhealthy habits and increased levels of stress, impaired sleep, and high risks of depression and anxiety according to Newcastle University epidemiologist Nicole Valtorta.

Lonely people find it harder to reach out on a social level despite the availability of communication channels. Online channels and social media allow for easy, low effort communication but the lack of physical interaction and contact causes the satisfaction of communication to fall short. Additionally, the culmination of isolation architecture and rampant individualism create what feels like an inescapable bubble of isolation.

A Solution In The Form Of Forging Community

This need not be a death sentence. While loneliness is becoming increasingly threatening in our society, there are solutions to combat this malignant force. Community and forging social bonds with others is key to overcoming loneliness.

Forming communities has been an inherent part of our social nature since archaic times. In prehistoric times, a lone human had no chance of survival. Isolation a higher risk of being mauled by animals, assaulted by other humans as well as having fewer resources for survival. A tribe of people could split the work and pool their talents together to increase their survival chances exponentially according to Steve Cole of UCLA.

Research has proven that older adults engaging in community and social groups lower feelings of loneliness and positively affect mental health. A researcher at UCLA found that, in 2018, older adults that joined a choir were more engaged in life and felt less lonely. Similar research in Australia has also found that older adults that participate in church clubs and book clubs have a lower risk of death. Maintaining a sense of purpose and allowing retirees to connect with communities that are meaningful to them, increase their life expectancy and interest in life, the authors concluded.

Many mental health associations and advocacy groups such as the US National Institute of Health encourages those who feel lonely to volunteer in community projects or join clubs that encourage group physical activities.

Another solution catered to all ages comes in the form of cohousing, which has been growing in popularity across the world. Cohousing is an intentional community formed by multiple families in a single neighbourhood. These communities are often multi-generational and can assist socialization between residents by having communal areas such as a neighborhood shared dining and kitchen, as well as assisting in child care, elder care, the formation of clubs and social activities for the community. By enhancing the bonds between neighbours and residents rather than just focusing on a single household, cohousing reduces the severity and effects of social isolation and loneliness according to Louise Hawkley of the University of Chicago.

A community brings wellness in many ways. Humans are social creatures and we receive immense benefits from being able to interact with each other regularly. Being supported by a community can be a huge relief to the burdens of everyday life. As in cohousing communities, burdens such as childcare and carpooling are common benefits that residents enjoy and having an area for gathering and engagement has shown extreme improvements in the health and well-being of members of a housing community by facilitating their ability to socialize.

Bringing people together rather than separating them forges strong community bonds, increases engagement and greatly improves the mental and physical health of all parties. Western culture and individualistic nature combined with the increasing threats of loneliness and isolation is a daunting force to overcome. However, with overwhelming conviction, we believe that community and socialization between neighbours is the remedy.