One of the main reasons why humans have come to dominate the planet is our ability to work together in groups, co-operate and share. Our sense of security and self esteem depend to a large extent on being accepted and valued as part of a group; be it our family, friends or community. I believe that community is a basic human need and essential to both our individual and collective health.

Nevertheless, modern times have seen a steady shift away from community and towards individualism, particularly in rich countries. Large extended families living closely together and tight knit, interdependent communities are a thing of the past in many areas. Increasingly people are living on their own or in couples with very little interaction with neighbours and community. I would argue that this development is to the detriment both of the planet that supports us and of our collective health and happiness. Living further apart and not sharing our resources means that we are consuming what the earth has to offer us at a catastrophically high speed.

Having lived for many years in communal set-ups, I can testify to the vastly superior levels of efficiency in terms of energy and resource consumption and waste disposal. More significant for the purpose of this article, however, are the benefits to be gained in terms of human resources and our collective capabilities. Here are some of those benefits:

  1. Sharing household tasks and other aspects of daily living means that a much greater amount of time is freed up for recreation and leisure. (Despite all of our labour saving technology we now have less leisure time than primitive man).
  2. Sharing of resources and  technology such as tools, machinery and transport is far more economical than having to buy them all individually.
  3. A support network is in place in times of difficulty such as illness, bereavement or accidents.
  4. Social interaction and the opportunity to learn from others are greatly enhanced.

Undoubtedly the trend towards individualism has been driven by the perception that it offers greater freedom, choice and opportunities for self expression. I would argue, however, that whilst this may be true for some, for the majority modern living is a struggle to cope with the demands of an increasingly complex society and is often accompanied by loneliness and desperation. Since the hippy movements of the 60’s and 70’s there have been many attempts to return to more communal ways of living, but so far there are only a few who have successfully established long term communities. Some of them such as The Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, The Farm  in the US and ZEGG in Germany have become places of great inspiration for many people and have formed The Gaia Ecovillage Network (GEN) to promote the development of ecovillages around the world. Ecovillages and other similar modern concepts such as co-housing and housing co-ops are attempts to recreate community without necessarily returning to fully fledged communal living. Thus individuals and families may still have their own homes but may share land, food production, transport etc.

Obviously it isn’t feasible for us all to start new ecovillages or co-housing projects but many of the principles could be applied to the already existing neighbourhoods. Recent years has seen the emergence of the Transition Towns movement which proposes just that and is growing rapidly all around the world. The Transition idea is based on the assumption that supplies of oil and other resources upon which we have based our existence, will soon be unable to meet demand, and that this, together with the problems caused by Climate Change, will mean that we will soon be facing major challenges to our way of life. It argues that by working together as communities we can develop resilience and be in a much stronger position to face those challenges. Towns such as Totnes, Lewes and Todmorden (Incredible Edibles) provide inspirational examples of how communities working together can bring about positive, innovative and exciting changes for the benefit of all.

So how does all of this relate to our personal health? Clearly, being a valued and popular member of a group or community withh which we can identify and receive support, security and nourishment can only enhance our well-being. For many, however, finding that group, particularly a cohesive and harmonious one, is becoming increasingly difficult. In the age of individualism, competition and the global market we are finding it hard to get on with each other. In my experience, many community initiatives flounder because of personality conflicts. It is fundamental, in my view, that we all devote some of our energy towards creating harmony with others, both for our own personal and our collective peace of mind.

An excellent strategy that I have found is described by Stephen Covey in the book The Seven Habits of Successful People as looking for “Win-Win” outcomes in our relationships. Many of us have a tendency to put our own interests above those of others or to seek to gain personally at the expense of others (the “Win-Lose” option). Some of us may tend to sacrifice our own well-being for the sake of others or become victims (the “Lose-Win” option). When we seek mutually beneficial outcomes (“Win-Win”) we develop honest, trusting and positive relationships. Obviously this strategy is easier to put into practice when we have positive feelings towards other people, which is why I believe that the most important ingredient for creating community is compassion. The Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness argues that compassion is, in fact, the source of all happiness. Most of us will be familiar with the great sense of joy we can gain from helping to bring happiness to others. He argues, moreover, that compassion can and should be cultivated. We can begin by reminding ourselves on a daily basis, that everyone is striving to be happy and deserves to be happy, just like ourselves. When we bear in mind that we are all driven to a certain extent by our fears, which often lead us to make unwise choices, we are more likely to be able to understand and forgive others for their unwise actions. When we listen with empathy, patience and humility to people and attempt to avoid being judgemental, we are more able to understand their point of view and the reasons for their actions. If we are more able to develop a positive and happy state of mind for ourselves (see “Mind” section) we are much more likely to have the energy and inclination to feel and show compassion for others. People will also be more attracted to our positive energy.

Ultimately, even at times when we don’t feel the inclination to seek harmonious relationships with others, we can remind ourselves that conflict can only be harmful to us and others, whilst harmony is of benefit to all. An act of kindness will ultimately benefit both the giver and the receiver and will contribute to the collective happiness. It is much easier for us all to be happy as individuals if all around us are happy.

To summarise, I would recommend that, if you haven’t already done so, you become part of an initiative to strengthen your community. There are many such initiatives in most places already but if not you may have to start one. I did just that in my home town, shortly after returning and we now have a thriving group called “Home Grown Hornsea”. No doubt, within your community there will be many whose views are very different from your own. However, if you resolve to be always positive, patient, humble, flexible, tolerant and forgiving whilst consistently looking for the best in people and for the issues which unite you, you will surely develop successful relationships and bring great benefits to those around you as well as boosting your own health and happiness.