When Rebecca Wallace and her husband, Bob, moved from Texas to Colorado in 2014, they left behind a close-knit community created over 20 years around a small chain of running stores. After selling their stores and retiring to Colorado Springs, Wallace took a methodical approach to forming connections in her new location.
“I had a strong community in Dallas, but because I wasn’t from Colorado Springs, I knew if I was going to have that community again, I needed to create it for myself,” Wallace says. “I’ve been lucky — I make friends easily. I’m not afraid to talk to strangers.”
In 2015, Wallace began volunteering at the nearby Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where she frequently walked in the afternoons. She also volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate, a role she had always longed to fill but never had the time for before retiring.
She started Iyengar-yoga teacher training at her new yoga studio and formed friendships in her neighborhood — especially with other dog owners — which led to dinners and wine tastings together.
Her involvement in these various communities became a lifeline in 2019, when her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Bob died in July 2020, just months after the start of the global pandemic that forced people into isolation.
“I didn’t create these connections with people because I wanted something in return,” recalls Wallace, now 61. “But in our time of need, the floodgates opened.” Friends provided respite care so she could run errands or attend a yoga class; they brought meals or helped her tend Bob’s vegetable garden — a level of support she attributes to the strength of her community.
Before the era of modern transportation and technology, people didn’t choose community; community formed within a relatively small location and was focused on meeting life’s essential needs, such as food and shelter. A community also provided social and emotional support. What and whom you worried about was largely limited to your geographic location.
Today, those of us with the means can travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours and connect with people all over the world instantaneously. We can work, shop, exercise, and socialize remotely. Anyone, anywhere, can form community; the choices of what and whom you support with your energy are limitless.
Unlimited potential seems like progress. And yet the opportunity to create and build our own circles can be overwhelming. Our hyperconnectivity can produce emotional overload and paralysis — we often don’t know where to begin.
Community and clinical psychologist David McMillan, PhD, who began developing a “sense of community” theory in 1976, says community — like love — can be difficult to define. He describes it this way: “Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”
His original theory included four main elements: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. Later, he began using the terms “art, trust, spirit, and trade,” as he explained in a 1996 article in the Journal of Community Psychology.
McMillan believes that a sense of community moves in a circular, self-enforcing pattern. For instance, the art that results from telling a community story — of shared connections, events, even drama — honors the members within a community and becomes a symbol that creates trust within the group.
That trust fosters a sense of personal safety, encouraging people to be honest and vulnerable, which then strengthens the spirit of belonging. Belonging creates responsibility and expectations, which provide structure and also influence members to show up with something of value to meet the needs of the community: trade.
The Work of Belonging
Too often, we expect the benefits of friendship to simply appear in our lives; we either fall into fruitful relationships spontaneously or we don’t. And social media’s fantasy of effortless perfection combined with the pace of modern living can lead to harsh self-criticism when social connections prove elusive.
As if “real-life” relationships weren’t hard enough, the pandemic made face-to-face interaction even more rare and fractured — in isolation, it’s hard to feel like you “belong” anywhere.
“To be human is to belong.”
This notion of belonging is a central component of social entrepreneur Radha Agrawal’s book, Belong: Find Your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life. “To be human is to belong,” she writes. “We were literally born in community, attached to someone else.”
Belonging, Agrawal believes, is a basic human need, like food, water, and shelter. She cites studies that suggest poor social connection can be as bad for our health as alcoholism. (For more on the health effects of loneliness, see “The Health Effects of Loneliness and Isolation“.)
With that in mind, Agrawal argues that we should all take care of our community ties with the same intention and effort we bring to our individual health.
“Sharing our unique gifts with the greater whole is vital to our humanity.”
But we live in a society that prizes independence and self-reliance, and we’re encouraged to discover what makes us unique. Although celebrating our individuality may be good, Agrawal adds that “sharing our unique gifts with the greater whole is vital to our humanity.”
Community Begins With You
“Building a community where we feel a deep sense of belonging requires a real and honest understanding of ourselves first,” Agrawal explains. In other words, you must go in before you can go out. She offers five steps to help you “find your people.”
1. Make a life timeline that plots your formative events so you better understand your motivations. List the cities you’ve called home, and add the schools, jobs, relationships, books, movies, and moments — whether big or small — that have shaped you. Rather than a linear chronology, let the shape of your timeline form from the flow of your memories. Invite input from people you trust and take time to sit with your past. “Recognizing all that got us here today and the events that shaped who we are will allow us to move forward with a clearer understanding of ourselves, what we want, and why,” Agrawal writes.
2. Take inventory of your values, interests, and abilities to better align with the types of community you hope to serve — and that can serve you, too. Human-resources departments often gather these sorts of personal insights to evaluate the fit of potential candidates for their organizations. Why not make this same assessment for your friendships and community?
3. Apply this self-knowledge as you research up to 10 communities before narrowing your list to two or three you’d want to explore. Use online resources for research and perhaps to make initial connections, but think of them as stepping stones to your eventual interaction with a three-dimensional community.
4. Seek out “five-sense friends.” Paying attention to our five senses in all our relationships, not just romantic ones, is critical for belonging. “We’ve replaced our ability to ‘feel’ one another through our animal instincts and five senses with ‘judging our emoji game,’” Agrawal writes. “When all five of our senses are activated and firing on all cylinders, we feel happiest and most connected to one another.”
In seeking out five-sense friends, try to be one of those friends for others in your life, too. That means making eye contact, listening closely, eating meals together, and touching (with consent). This proximity to others means you’re close enough to get a whiff of each other’s pheromones — those hormones we secrete that are detected by others through smell, which can influence social bonds.
5. Positively participate. “Participation with a positive attitude is the ultimate key to belonging,” Agrawal writes. “You’ll feel the most emotionally invested and connected to others in the group by getting your hands dirty and offering your time and energy to enhance the community experience. The sweat and effort of doing something for the benefit of the greater whole will fill you with the most satisfaction and joy. This is also how people come to view you as someone they want to be around, know more about, and care for.”
That certainly holds true for Wallace, who, shortly after her husband’s diagnosis, joined another like-minded community — one for caregivers. As someone who is typically a “giver,” she can appreciate the full expression of belonging in community, especially given how her circle supported her during such a tough time in her life. “A lot of people were there to help me, and I know it made them feel good, too,” she recalls. “The outpouring of support I received still makes me tear up to this day.”
This article originally appeared as “How to Create Belonging” in the November 2022 issue of Experience Life.