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people enjoying community during bookclub

It was a bad time to join a book club. I was in graduate school, and adding another book to the roster didn’t seem like a good idea. But I did it anyway. The savvy, funny women in the group proved irresistible: All were great conversationalists, and they shared my enthusiasm for elaborate snacks. Though we led different lives — not everyone had kids, or similar vocations, and only a couple of members shared the deep bonds of lifelong friendship — our unfussy meet-and-eats made my life decidedly richer.

Then, a couple of years after we started getting together, one member’s quiet, handsome spouse got cancer. A kind of cancer that nobody wants. Shortly afterward, in a development that seemed far more appropriate to one of the novels we were reading, she did too. And like a flock of birds making a sudden turn together across the sky, our casual book group sprang into coordinated action without so much as pausing to think.

Regular meal deliveries were scheduled, massage services were arranged, babysitting and playgroups for the couple’s two children were offered. Names of acupuncturists were traded and rides to chemotherapy were given. Regular email updates on the family’s general well-being were sent. One friend helped arrange a benefit to raise money for the family, who had insurance but otherwise lived on the salaries of two working artists. Hundreds of friends and strangers attended and donated.

The book club soon became a small part of a larger support network, but those casual ties turned out to have considerable value — for all of us. The community’s help couldn’t fix the unfixable for our friends, but it might have improved the unbearable. Money alone could have paid for services, too, but when a community comes together to assist, it goes both ways: The receiver gets help in the present, and the giver gets the reassuring knowledge that when it is his or her turn (and it will be, sometime), the network is there. It’s hard to put a price tag on that kind of insurance.

The book club soon became a small part of a larger support network, but those casual ties turned out to have considerable value — for all of us.

Another name given to connections like these is “social capital.” This is the label deployed by Harvard University public policy professor Robert Putnam to describe the measurable and immeasurable value of social networks. These are similar to but distinct from professional networks, which have their graces but ultimately leave us open to the vagaries of economic capital. Salaries and employment benefits have a way of coming and going that social capital does not.

Social capital is built wherever human bonds are formed and gaps between communities are bridged. It develops in places as diverse as book club meetings and political campaigns, in gestures as simple as voting and as committed as volunteering. It’s defined by the belief that social bonds yield essential benefits. Research shows that having a healthy amount of social capital plays a key role in human happiness. Critically, it allows people to thrive even in situations of economic hardship.

This is partly because the actual health benefits of social capital are legion. According to research gathered by the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, a civic engagement research initiative founded by Putnam, joining a club has nearly the same health impact on longevity as quitting smoking. States with high social-capital indexes see fewer babies born with low birth weights. Ten percent of citizens knowing one another’s first name in a community is more effective in preventing crime than having 10 percent more police on the beat. Strong social networks support survival by offering direct help with tasks like childcare and car repair, and by enabling connections to education and employment. But they also mark the difference between mere survival and living a rich, enjoyable life — one that involves giving and receiving.

Of course, it takes time. And in that respect, social capital is like many other natural resources: We used to have a lot more of it. Other research gathered by Saguaro indicates that the last 25 years have seen roughly a 30 percent decline in family dinners and vacations, a 45 percent reduction in friends visiting each others’ homes, and a 50 percent decrease in participation in clubs and civic organizations.

The reasons behind the decline in social interactions are manifold. An all-consuming culture of work is at least partly to blame. And as we work more hours, we’re also commuting farther — while every 10 minutes spent car commuting reduces social capital by 10 percent: fewer interactions with friends and family, less time spent volunteering, and less participation in community events. And while everyone’s quality of life suffers from this loss, those with low incomes are usually hit hardest. This is both because of the absence of social capital’s practical support and the way that it helps change circumstances. As the gap between high- and low-income communities grows, those with less money become less likely to know anyone whose situation is different enough from their own that the other’s connections or resources could help change their situations.

While the advent of digital communication is often touted as a panacea for social isolation, it’s double-edged. Social media offers abundant chances for connection with strangers, but often routes us toward like-minded people rather than those who might expand our views or connections.

While the advent of digital communication is often touted as a panacea for social isolation, it’s double-edged. Social media offers abundant chances for connection with strangers, but often routes us toward like-minded people rather than those who might expand our views or connections. Saguaro researchers note further that access to computers is far from universal, and electronic contact doesn’t confer the vast amount of nonverbal information we gain from face-to-face interactions.

The single bright spot here is that the waning of social capital is a relatively new historical trend — and not impossible to turn around. Many people are making diligent, delightful efforts to restore connections in and between communities (see “9 Ways to Connect and Transform”), some that draw on historical wisdom and others that are uniquely situated to the culture of the present.

Meanwhile, seniors are still generating plenty of social capital, most likely because they grew up with stronger social connections. Many still go to religious services, donate time and money to charitable organizations, and spend regular time with friends and family. Persons over 65 contribute the majority of time spent volunteering in the United States.

Yet social capital can also be built with relatively small investments of time or money: Trading in one hour of TV for an hour socializing on the front porch. Checking out a book from the public library. Having a standing monthly dinner with a group of friends. Joining a softball team or a book club. (Mine met only every second or third month.) Whatever brings you into voluntary contact with other human beings creates social capital. That includes people you know and love and people you’ve never met, those from your block and those from a neighborhood across town. It all counts. And it all matters.

Mere exposure to others — including those irritating, how-could-they-say-that others, as well as people you really like — makes supportive action a logical next step. Social contact makes you realize, sooner or later, that you have something in common with another person, at which point it becomes a little more difficult to be indifferent to her fate. Suddenly you don’t have to look for volunteer work or wonder how you can “give back,” because the chance to help out happens naturally. It could mean babysitting for a neighbor you met at National Night Out, becoming a literacy tutor at the library where you check out books, or cooking meals for a friend of a friend who’s in the middle of intensive medical treatment. It can mean anything. People always need help, and when you know them, even a little, you want to give it.

And then sooner or later, people you know only casually will show up on your doorstep with a casserole. Maybe it will be to share at a book club, but then again, maybe not. Either way, it will taste so much better than takeout. And you will both be just a little richer for the exchange.

This article has been updated and originally appeared as “Community Counts” in the April 2014 issue of Experience Life.

Courtney Helgoe

Courtney Helgoe is the Experience Life features editor.

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