Social Wellness’s Decline in America + 6 Ways to Improve It

Loneliness and the Mental Health Crisis

It’s no secret: the US and many other countries are facing mental health crises and a loneliness epidemic.

It’s tempting to blame these crises on a solitary cause, or even just two or three, and people do: they blame smart phones, video games, social media, vaccines, processed food, social movements and more.

We’d prefer a single cause. Human nature loves simple solutions. It’s much easier to pin the rise of mental illness and the growing number of citizens who consider themselves lonely on a single factor, or even a handful of factors. It gives us some sense of control—just fix that one thing, or those few things, and problem solved. The idea that hundreds, maybe thousands of factors, not all of which are easy to discover or address, might contribute to a problem is overwhelming. Especially if we consider that some factors might be beyond our control.

Mental Wellbeing, Community, and Lessons Learned in a Cult

Park in Tajikistan, structure lit by pink lights.
Tajikistan

First, let me say that I’m not a professional counselor or expert on these topics. Still, many of my clients are—either they are mental health professionals, or they have lots of experience (or both), and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also had the privilege of traveling abroad quite a bit, and not just as a tourist. I’ve lived in a developing country and spent weeks at a time in others with the everyday people who live there. As to my own experience, I was born in a cult. Not one with terribly weird beliefs or extreme practices, but a run-of-the-mill fundamentalist church that somewhere along the way took a wrong turn.

That wrong turn ended up being destructive and damaging in some ways, and I’m grateful to be free of all the things that were wrong with that community. Yet as I near a decade in more mainstream American culture, I cannot help but reflect on some things that backwards little church did well. One thing they got right contrasts sharply with what I’ve seen and experienced in the rest of modern US society. That thing is not unique to the cult; I’ve had the privilege of spending time in countries as far-flung as Peru, Tajikistan, and Botswana, and while there are vast differences among those cultures, that same thing is something they tend to do better than Americans.

All of that has led me to this: while I don’t believe a single factor can take the blame for the increasing sense of isolation and the worsening state of mental health in the US and other Western countries, there is one thing that I believe contributes: a weakening sense of community.

That is not just my observation, either. My interest in other cultures has led me to make friends and business acquaintances among different immigrant groups. It has intrigued me to find something we have in common: we miss a strong, supportive community. Social wellness, it seems, can be harder to attain in the US.

Three things my immigrant friends and I agree on:

  1. Having multiple people whom you can call at a moment’s notice makes your life easier in practical ways.
  2. It lightens your mental and emotional burden and helps relieve stress.
  3. When you grow up having a strong sense of community, you take it for granted. Once you’re in an increasingly isolated and tech-driven society, it isn’t always that easy to build those same kind of social support networks.

Let’s explore these three lessons.

Why Is Community Harder in America?

I recently discussed with my friend and book client, Ange, who immigrated from Rwanda, the fact that in many less-developed countries, middle-class households often experience one of two realities—or both—that ease the burden of daily life:

  • Household hired help—not a once-a-week cleaning service, but someone who’s there almost every day. That person can do anything from cleaning to food prep/cooking, to laundry and ironing, to taking and picking up kids from school.
  • A mother or older relative in the home or who lives very close by who can do some of those things.

In contrast, most Americans get home from a full workday and then clean, cook, pick up kids, and help them with homework. Usually, something gives—food prep, cleaning, maybe both—and you make less healthy food choices, or your cluttered, dingy home environment compounds your mental and emotional load. (This can be even more the case in single-parent households.) Trying to keep up with all that, who has time or energy to go out with friends?

A couple other things about American culture make community harder.

Three crowded lanes of cars and other motor vehicles approach an overpass.
Commuting has negative effenesscts of your health and mental well.
  • Commutes tend to be long. Numerous studies show the negative effects that driving 25-30 minutes or more to work each day has on health: everything from higher rates of hypertension, obesity, and other chronic disease to higher rates of divorce, depression, and so on.

  • Once we’re home, we’re plugged in or engaged in screentime. Video games, the news, TV shows—we tune into something.

    No one’s outside on the front lawn enjoying a _________ (insert beverage of choice) while watching the kids play, as we did before the widespread advent of air-conditioning and TV. So we don’t know our neighbors, at least not well.

  • Even if we go outside to exercise, we close ourselves into our own world, listening to music or podcasts. We lose a chance not only to connect with nature—which science has shown benefits us mentally and emotionally—but with our neighbors or fellow joggers.

    In fact, recent article I read cracked me up. It talked about a new trend, “silent walking,” which is simply walking for exercise without listening to anything on earbuds or headphones. The article touted this as offering benefits like those of meditation. (Really? For thousands of years, humans have walked without listening to anything. Now it has to be a labelled trend to get people to do it?)

The cult I grew up in reversed a couple of the social and technological changes that have made social wellness in America more challenging: in the cult, the wife in a family usually did not work outside the home, even if this strained the family financially. Also, TVs and movies were strongly discouraged. So, we were outside a lot more than we might have otherwise, and we socialized often. Wives—and often homeschooled children—were home all day, so meals were cooked and ready at the end of the day, and there were often leftovers or plenty of extra food, which made it easy to invite someone to stay for dinner who dropped in while they were running an errand in the area.

No Room for Spontaneity

American society in the main doesn’t give much wiggle room for drop-in visitors and spontaneous social engagements. Between work, long commutes, and children who need time and attention, our lives are so structured and scheduled that we rely on “getting something on the calendar” to have a meal with friends, maybe even just to grab coffee. When we do relax, our favorite electronics tend to be the go-to, not our friends or neighbors.

Is it any wonder that an epidemic of loneliness has taken over so many Western nations? Or that we’re in the grip of a mental health crisis?

Of course, these challenges to our sense of community in the Western world are trends. Reality for families and individuals can be much more nuanced. You may find yourself in a different place on the continuum for each factor: commutes, kids, electronics, etc.

Still, the overall effect on society is hard to deny. In the face of it all, what do we do? How can we reclaim our sense of community?

Building Your Community

Many of my immigrant friends and I have found that having a network of people around us in America takes hard work. That idea itself is hard to swallow—where we come from, community just was. We didn’t have to do much to build or maintain it.

But now, this is our reality.

It’s like exercise. In times past, most people got enough physical activity in their daily routines. Now, to ensure we get plenty of exercise, we must be intentional. And just as you have to make time to work out your body, you have to make time to work out your social life.

Ways to Start Building Your Tribe

1.    Start Small

If you take your kids to school soccer games once a week, get home at the same time as your neighbor every day, or always shop at the same grocery store, it takes only a little extra effort. Smile at the mom sitting behind you, wave and ask your neighbor a question about the weather, learn the cashier’s name, and give her a compliment.

Over time those little interactions can grow. Maybe you go a little deeper: a playground date with your new mom friend so the kids can run off some energy while the two of you share a thermos of coffee. Or maybe you offer to watch your neighbor’s dog while he’s on vacation or give him the extra tacos from your to-go order. You might start learning the names of the grocery store cashiers and find out about their vacation plans or education goals.

All these things can be the start of something more.

2.    Existing Groups and Communities

Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples—religious organizations already have a community built around them. Besides regular worship services, many offer other group activities as well, like study groups, to help you build deeper relationships with your fellow believers.

Then there are Facebook and MeetUp groups structured around a common interest—salsa dancing, hiking, board games, Spanish language practice groups and more. Other groups are based on life stages or occupations—Moms with Preschoolers, Single Social Dancing, Young Christian Business Leaders, etc.

You may have to try a few before you find one that fits. That’s OK! Even if a group isn’t right for you, you might meet someone there who becomes a friend.

3.    Your Neighborhood

Some neighborhoods have associations that plan activities. Even if yours doesn’t, you can get on Nextdoor, a social media app that connects you to your neighbors. Many neighborhoods have a Buy Nothing group or page on Facebook. These can be great ways to connect with the people who live around you.

And you can be old-fashioned and share food. I like to bake, but it isn’t healthy for me and my husband to eat everything that I bake. So I take my neighbors cookies and bread from time. My neighbors on one side are good about giving us extra items that come in their grocery or takeout orders that they’re not going to eat.

Reaching out like this may feel weird at first, especially if you’re not used to it, but you’ll soon discover that you feel more connected to where you live.

4.    Don’t Wait till It’s Perfect

I love entertaining. One of my goals is to have the kind of household where people CAN just drop in. I love feeding people and making them feel at home in a world that can be uncaring or downright harsh.

The problem is, I love poring over recipes and looking at home décor ideas. For years I subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens magazine. I love having the time and energy to get my house in perfect order, set a pretty table with a tablecloth and flowers, and prepare photo-worthy food to set on it.

Wine and water glasses set on a red tablecloth.
I love setting a beautiful table for company.

But most of the time, my house never seems quite clean enough, and I don’t have the time or energy to get it there. Or our dinner plans are leftovers from yesterday, not a fresh cooked meal.

Still, I know the truth: hospitality is sharing what you have, spending time with people when you can. So I invite people even when the house is a mess. I even help them feel more at home by having them pitch in sometimes: “Can you pick up a bag salad and dressing on your way?” I’m learning not to wait till it’s all perfect.

Similarly, if you wait till the stars align to schedule that drink with your coworker after hours, it may never happen.

Some of you may not identify with this. Maybe you are comfortable inviting people into your mess or your messy schedule. But for those of you who aren’t, sacrificing perfectionism for relationships is worth it.

5.    Be the Little Red Hen

In other words, “Do it yourself.” Your neighborhood doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Buy Nothing group? Can’t find a MeetUp group you like? Your church doesn’t have a monthly ladies’ brunch?

Start it.

Or maybe there’s an event or activity you’d like to see in your area—a Valentine’s Daddy and Daughter Dance, a block-wide garage sale, a community garden, a community feed-the-homeless breakfast. Research what it takes to do it. See if local businesses or organizations would help sponsor it. Put up flyers—do it yourself!

6.    Volunteer

It’s hard to find a downside to this one. Volunteering in your community not only connects you with others, but it gives you the oxytocin rush associated with a little connection activity we call sex. Yes, really! Not only that but volunteering connects you tangibly—you’re literally doing something for your community.

Worried you don’t have time? Interestingly, research shows that when people spend time volunteering for a cause, they actually feel as if they have more time on their schedule!

(If you want to check out more of the benefits of giving back, check out this post.)

But I Don’t Trust People I Know

People are problematic. No one is 100% reliable, even if they try. Most everybody knows that.

Unfortunately, some people’s experience tells them that all people will treat them badly—they’ll cheat, lie, steal, not keep their word. For those people, it may be hard to want to build a community or go deep with anyone.

I hear you. I’ve been hurt. Badly.

But you can’t be healthy without people in your life on whom you can depend to a degree. So:

  1. Learn to set boundaries with people who are toxic.
  2. Trust that there are non-toxic people out there that you can be friends with.
  3. If you keep attracting the wrong type of people, look at yourself in the mirror and see what you need to change.
  4. Get help. See a counselor, therapist, psychiatrist—someone who can walk with you through your trust issues, show you how to set boundaries with people who take advantage of you, and help you learn how to find good people to do life with.

Conclusion: Social Wellness Takes Exercise

Western culture makes life more convenient, but those same traits can make it more challenging for us to have the social support networks that humans have relied on for our entire history. Along with those challenges, the focus on individuality and the constant push to be productive, to be doing instead of being, can make building your tribe even harder.

Yet, like eating right and getting adequate exercise, a strong community is paramount to your wellbeing: financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. In times past, physical activity and unprocessed foods were what everyone did; now we must think and plan to incorporate those things into our daily lives. It’s the same with community.

I recently heard Beth Townsend say that “A better me is a better we.” That’s true. However, the reverse is also true: “A better we is a better me.”

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