The first thing I saw when I opened my mailbox this morning was a link to an article in the Financial Times about how loneliness is contributing to tribal politics, and it got me thinking. Not about politics as I will leave that issue for someone else to ponder; my thoughts are more around loneliness and a growing sense of disconnection in the world. The article quoted something a Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, observed – that Americans and Britons are increasingly living alone, working alone, and shopping from home, which is leading to a lack of a sense of belonging. He calls it ‘bowling alone’ – a description that I completely connect with. I would add that this sense of loneliness is made even more acute when you add relocation, work travel and possibly living away from your family into the mix. I have done all of these things at various times and I have had the lofty phone bills (pre-Internet, of course) to prove it.
All of this begs the question – how can we create, or perhaps re-create a sense of community when we are feeling somewhat isolated? I have some strategies that I have picked up over time, but as usual I have also polled my network for some of their ideas.
The key thing I came up with is that it is crucial, although not always easy, to have a positive mindset. A number of years back, I grudgingly moved back to Chicago, my hometown, from Hong Kong. To make matters worse, I moved at the end of November – a depressing time of year unless you like frozen nose hairs and an icy wind that blows in all directions. Unlike my husband, I approached the move with a huge dose of distain and, as you can imagine, my first year was really difficult. Early on I had an occasional sense of belonging; however, the big shift only came when I realised that I was wasting my time feeling miserable and that things wouldn’t change until I let go of my negativity. That experience taught me that that it is possible for me to find a sense of belonging wherever I am as long as I approach it with the right attitude.
Besides a positive outlook, what else helped? I realised that it is important to find things that make where I am special – or at least special to me. For example, when I moved back to London a few years ago, one of the first things I did was to find a few local haunts. I now have couple of favourite bakeries I love to visit, my local urban farm with a lovely fishmonger, a veggie guy, etc., as well as my beloved Pilates studio. Whenever I come back from a trip, I always visit these as soon as I can as it gives me an important sense of grounding – a kind of anchor to my community.
If you need inspiration to find something to add to your ‘special’ list, there are many resources available online. When I was feeling a bit out of touch with London, I tapped into Time Out’s hidden London and I came up with some great ideas. Admittedly, not all of them made my special list; however, it was fun to go out and re-explore a city I had lived in previously for almost a decade and it helped me to see my city in a new light.
Other things you can do? Establish a ‘point of place’ (a phrase coined by my niece) – some piece of architecture, for example, that speaks to you. When I lived in LA it was Hollywood Park racecourse, even though I didn’t actually visit until I had moved away, and in Hong Kong it was Ocean Park amusement park. Every time I saw my landmark, I thought ‘I’m home’. It’s simple but surprisingly effective, especially if you travel a lot as it can give you an instant feeling of connection.
Finally, connecting with people has always been extremely important for me. When I moved back to London, I knew that a lot of our friends had moved away so I needed to find new people with whom to connect. I have been fortunate to find a special group of people that I met at my local parkrun (parkrun.com), through volunteering and occasionally running, on a Saturday morning. Find something you like to do and a place you can do it and you will probably find like-minded people to do it with.
In the end, play around with what works for you. Whether you get a sense of community through place or people, the investment of time and effort is infinitely worth it. And remember, sometimes it’s as simple as smiling at a stranger on the street or saying hi to a neighbour you don’t know that does the trick.