We need to talk more about the true meaning of life.
I normally use a reference in a book as a jumping off point for these posts, so here’s one of those from someone who maybe isn’t typically associated with business leadership.
“It was a community and that is how human beings were designed to live.
“Anytime you wanted to be alone you simply close your door and anytime you wanted to be with people you would open it again.
“If there’s a better recipe for happiness then it hasn’t been seen yet.”
This quote is from Thursday Murder Club, a best-seller but I don’t think Richard Osman was going for the urban regen market in his tale of property developers targeting heritage sites with dirty money.
There are lots of quite strong signs that community is a vital, and vitally under-appreciated, component of a good life well lived.
I think it’s the secret behind the meaning of life.
When we are in a community we feel it, we feel the communitas — the spirit of community. It’s a powerful sense of togetherness, solidarity, and social connection.
Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, maybe when we’re at a concert of our favourite band, or on a protest march.
I talk about Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal a lot, but she really hit the nail on the head here when it came to the itch that social media scratches well. It is ambient sociability, the ability to tune in and tune out of social interaction as we see fit.
That’s what Richard Osman is describing.
It’s this idea of being alone, together.
It is something which freelancers and entrepreneurs can relate to, and why coworking spaces and community workspaces are so vital to create this new social infrastructure.
I’ve talked before about this pervasive idea of independence and how dangerous it is.
Too many people think entrepreneurship is about going it alone, doing everything yourself.
We’re interdependent beings, our survival depends on us understanding this.
Our society needs more focus on enabling and fostering interdependence, and regularly building relationships with new people.
In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg talks about the 1995 Chicago heat wave, and how community played a role in the fatality rates.
People were more likely to die if they were socially isolated. When controlled for everything else the number of friends and social contacts was the main determinant of whether elderly people would survive.
This ended up being more of a social disaster than natural disaster.
As heatwaves and extreme weather events become the norm rather than once in a generation occurrences, this tells us how much we need to consider investments in social infrastructure.
The campaigns for eating more veg, cutting down on smoking, or getting our 10,000 steps in have succeeded as pervasive and recognised ideas.
Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day when it comes to the impact on life expectancy.
We don’t have national campaigns highlighting the importance of elderly people building communities and networking. We don’t see it as being essential for men in their 30s to carve out time to socialise without alcohol involved.
Slogans like “5 a day” are now parroted as being a truism. The bed shop Dreams introduced this idea that we need to replace our mattresses every eight years because nobody had a fixed idea of how long you should keep a mattress before you replace it.
How often should we prioritise meeting friends? Five hours with friends a week? What’s the equivalent of 10,000 steps or 30 minutes of exercise?
We need a slogan for socialising to highlight how vital it is to our health — mental or otherwise.
Big ideas like libraries or youth clubs don’t seem to be gaining as much traction or support from the state or philanthropy as their potential impact should demand. The Men’s Sheds movement is vital, but youth centres don’t appear to have had their 21st centre evolution.
YOUmedia in Chicago gained prominence when artists like Noname cited it as being crucial to her success, having access to resources and communities of people (serious people — like Chance the Rapper) who helped them to work on their craft and make a career out of it, before cuts and layoffs weakened the programme.
After school and work we tend to be short on ideas for how to make friends and grow our communities.
This isn’t networking. It isn’t about building our circle for some future economic benefit. It isn’t a transaction. It’s building meaningful relationships that make us feel connected and valued.
In Nicoya, Costa Rica, they have become world famous as a “blue zone” by defying the wider national average life lengths.
Blue Zones are regions where people live better, longer lives. It’s a 20-year research project which looks at systems-level changes required to create better living environments.
There are many theories as to why Nicoyans are living such long lives, with an eye on having a diet which features less processed food, and even looking at their genetic make-up.
The leading belief is that it’s the close inter-generational relationships and tightly-knit communities that create the conditions for a long and well-lived life.
There’s even more evidence of this closer to home.
Men are 70% more likely to die within the 100 days after losing a spouse, it’s known as the widowhood effect.
6,000 people per year have what is known as a “public health funeral” or a “pauper’s funeral” a funeral for people who die with no next of kin.
This is one of the most tragic, under discussed crises in the modern world.
If you’ve worked in retail for five minutes you’ll know how much people value coming in as part of a routine or just to have someone to speak to. The closure of banks for “efficiency” gains, without recognising the wider role they play in society feels symptomatic of an extractive mindset that leaves nothing but a void when they’ve taken all they can from a community.
We owe a lot to people who have no places to meet, connect, and chat without spending on cakes and cappuccinos.
Community doesn’t mean being identical, just alike.
When we think of communities in this way there’s usually a shared purpose or reason for being.
Our thing in common can be linked around one shared interest, like supporting a football team, which binds you even though you have no other shared interests. It can even ignore all of the other things that might differentiate us or set us apart.
When you’re in a crowd and your team scores you don’t care who your neighbour voted for. That moment overrides any better sense.
Community can be temporary, it can be serendipitous, it can be spontaneous, or it can be sustained over years.
It isn’t always so formal, you don’t always know that you’re in one. You might not realise until you notice it is missing.
The same shared purpose idea drives our friendships.
This was explored in Billy No Mates by Max Dickins.
Our needs for friendships change. This might sound cold and transactional, but it plays out.
The friends you were in university with were going on the same journey as you at that time.
You’re more likely to stay in touch with people who are on a similar journey to you.
When you leave school you stay in touch with people who are going to uni. When you leave uni you stay in touch with people who are going into a similar career or profession. If you have kids then you end up spending more time with friends who also have kids.
Some of this is obvious logistics, if you move to the same city as someone else then you have more opportunity to stay in touch, similarly if you have kids at a similar time then you will have a reason to meet up and socialise collectively.
But the more important part is driven by empathy, and shared understanding.
Of course this doesn’t mean you intentionally only stay in contact with those people, but it is more likely to happen. You’re more likely to have interesting things to talk about with them.
There’s pretty obvious evidence in this when you’re childless and find it so painfully boring to hear about what your friends’ kids have been doing, and then if you do have kids realising how much they dominate your lives and thoughts.
Most of us are more empathetic than this, and are still able to make an effort to stay in touch with those that we have less in common with. But reflect on your existing friendships and whether you have consistently had more in common with those that you stayed closer to than those who have drifted.
We get the feeling of communitas through sport, whether participating or attending an event.
If you’re a big sport fan, you might have never thought about how that urge to throw your hands in the air when a goal is scored or a decision goes against you is totally involuntary.
The same at the end of a great piece of music, the round of applause can be so charged.
When you feel this sense of fiero you respond. We can’t not do it.
It doesn’t affect the game, the referee doesn’t see you waving, the players wouldn’t underperform if you were the only one who didn’t wave.
Another unexpected place where this communitas is present is in choirs and orchestras.
Singing creates synchronicity, and synchronicity builds relationships.
It’s why militaries march, it creates compliance and understanding — for good or bad.
One of the best ways to feel connected to people is to join a choir. Singing in time with others is good for the soul.
Synchronicity pays back in other ways too.
Synchronised holidays are another fascinating indicator of the importance of this. Time shared is better than time hoarded.
In Sweden, a 2013 study found that antidepressant usage went down during holidays — when prescription data was tracked.
This might not be that much of a surprise on its own, but there is a twist.
It dropped exponentially if more people were on holiday at the same time. The more people that are on holiday, the more the benefit is.
The USSR found something similar in an experiment designed to increase productivity by giving a new four days on, one day off, work pattern. There was a lot of sound logic here — it would spread the demand for public services like GPs and dentists — and basically decreases the days off to a weekend every eight days.
This was abandoned when mental health was seen to really plummet as a result of how difficult it was to sync up social engagements.
The patterns didn’t lend themselves to community building, if your day off wasn’t in sync with your partner or friends then you might still get the day off but you don’t have any of the benefit.
Time is a resource that can’t be hoarded well. It’s much better shared.
Time is a network good, the more of it that people around you have, the more it is worth to you.
Having lots of time but no constructive or collaborative way to spend it isn’t just useless, but it can be uncomfortable.
In Quiet, Susan Cain explores how introverts recharge with alone time, whereas extroverts recharge with others. That doesn’t mean that only extroverts need others and only introverts appreciate being able to shut themselves off.
Finding others in a community with shared views and perspectives can help us to feel validated.
Finding Your People
If it’s easier than ever to find people, why the loneliness epidemic?
In the last twenty years, our access to the internet has really distorted what it means to be social, and part of communities.
Platforms like Reddit have done an incredible job at creating pockets of communities in the most varied niches (mostly people with different interests in what cats do). Increasingly this is seen on TikTok and other platforms. Celebrities become their own communities, and common people have to worry about their own personal brand and how consistent their behaviour is with that image.
For anyone growing up in a town or area where they don’t feel understood, or valued, welcome, or even valid in their own skin, these platforms have been true life savers.
But they’re not community in the truest sense.
I want to be clear here: I’m not repeating that lazy idea that social media is evil, I’m saying it’s a different thing altogether.
A couple of years ago I was invited over the Berlin to meet with community leaders from all over the world — Boston, Accra, Valencia, Hyderabad, Gaborone, Tripoli, Belo Horizonte, Varna, and so many more — as part of a Facebook Groups initiative.
Over the course of a few winter days in the company of community leaders from across the world it was clear how the varied ways that people come together can create safety, validation, opportunity, friendship and love.
There were stories of single parents who were able to gain economic opportunity through their communities, ex-military who were desperately underserved by public mental health services but put their continued living down to the empathy that comes from their communities, and plenty of more mundane everyday examples which are still packed with importance.
Online communities are an important part of how we grow as people.
But they’re not the same. This felt validated in part by the fact that all of those global representatives being together in one place was so effective — rather than us just having a video call or relying on the Facebook group we were already all in.
Online communities need different curation. They have different rules, etiquette, and cultures.
Wallflowers and lurkers can themselves feel connected enough without commenting and engaging actively, but that doesn’t move the conversation forward.
Online platforms lack that community spontaneity, those side chats and “tell me more” moments that you can’t do on Teams and Zoom.
It’s something that’s really missing in our newly remote lives.
I’d also probably say that the culture on platforms like Twitter/X are so vicious that the term “social media” is probably redundant at this stage. It gets about as antisocial as you could imagine, and the default mode is to challenge without assuming the best in others. Basically like road rage, but for people sat on the toilet.
The online communities can become a part of our life quickly, but there can be a lot of effort that goes into building communities.
That said, we often lose a lot of that effort if we decide to move away.
Increasingly we live further from where we grew up, especially if you are a higher earner or travelled for Uni.
That means you’re ditching a sunk social cost to start again from scratch.
I felt like this when I first moved to Cardiff. For the first 12 months I could have happily left and never returned. I had no ties, connections, or relationships that I would miss.
When we think of cities we think of their buildings, infrastructure, and history, but it’s the people that make all of that matter. There’s no point having a great transport infrastructure if you don’t feel drawn to another’s company.
Professor Jeffrey Hall found in a 2018 study that it takes 200 hours of time together to form a close friend, and it helps if that contact time is in a short period of time rather than spread out.
As you get older — and life gets more complicated — it gets trickier to make the time needed to build those relationships and communities. 200 hours would be two hours a week for two years, which might work if you’re dating them but probably is less likely for any other kind of new friend. It is said to take 50 hours to move from acquaintance to casual friend.
It took the best part of that first year to have the events and interactions with my new corridor neighbours that moved them to acquaintances and then, in time, to friends (that have stuck).
That social environment is probably the most intense you could ever experience, it isn’t representative of life (unless you live in a city with a housing market that forces you to house share well into your 30s).
I think that’s why as adults we’re more likely to find friendship and love at work — 38% of us have supposedly dated a coworker, and 14% of marriages come from workplace romance.
We don’t have as many intense social interactions as life gets more complicated unless we join a club, society, team, choir, orchestra, or cause.
This is where the “5 a day” style slogan is needed. We all feel so busy with everything going on in life that we don’t realise how much we need to socialise. Meeting up with good friends is like gym for our mental health.
Why I Believe
That’s a bit about why I believe so much in the power of community.
I guess there’s a perspective on this which would raise the question: what does any of this have to do with business?
It’s a good, and appropriate, question if your perspective on the world is that business and enterprise needs to stay as it always has been. In the era of B Corps and social impact, I’m more of a believer that we can use business as a force for good.
We’re living in a loneliness epidemic, and it’s clear that there’s no doubt that it is impacting our health and well-being.
It won’t be business that fixes this, but business plays a role to show another way. This is especially true right now when we’re not seeing any new ideas or thinking coming from the state.
I feel like social entrepreneurs have a role to help visualise how these solutions can be — and I’ve talked before about why we need that so much right now.
We don’t know what the solution will be, but we need to see examples and new ideas to really visualise it.
For me, in our game, it’s those moments of overhearing one coworker express to another how useful and valuable that serendipitous moment where support was shared has been for them. Or seeing a new partnership emerge, or even romance blossom.
We can’t charge people more money if they fall in love, but that’s not the point. The point is that if you can create this much good for people then you must. I’ve mentioned this Steve Kerr quote before, but it really should be repeated daily: “It is a civic duty to give people joy.”
Community is the answer, now we need to work hard to make sure that the right questions are being asked — and demands made — to accelerate this cause.
What would your community-first, anti-loneliness slogan be? I’ll make up some laptop stickers for the best ones and one day we can get it printed on the side of a bus and see how we get on.
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