How community builds resilience

By Chandima Dutton

Someone recently asked me what I’d learned about resilience during the pandemic. One word came to mind immediately: Community. 

The word itself is from the Latin ‘communis’, having the same root as the word ‘communication’. For me, community is about social connection with purpose. 

Why is social connection so important? Research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci suggests that that there is a link between our basic psychological needs, our ability to grow as individuals, our performance, and our wellbeing. One of these basic needs is the need to relate to others and feel part of a social group. There are also many studies now emerging that show a link between a lack of social connection and poor mental and physical health, due to physical distancing restrictions in the pandemic. We are all hardwired to connect, especially to people we identify with.

When the first lockdown happened in the UK, it seemed that we had moved from the real to the surreal in the blink of an eye. It was hard to maintain any face-to-face contact – work, study, school, and other socially-based activities moved online, and some activities were dropped altogether. ‘Social distancing’ was mandated, and it felt like we had lost something vital.

Like many others who were able to work remotely, I adjusted my expectations, spent hours on Zoom calls, and struggled with juggling home schooling with work. I had to quickly figure out how to facilitate workshops online – what worked, what didn’t and what was just plain exhausting for everyone. I discovered new online learning communities and was surprised at how easy it was to get to know people and how far these relationships extended across the globe. And although we evolved ways of having more light-hearted and informal moments online, I still missed the face-to-face interactions and the chance to travel away from my desk to go and experience different environments. 

Local community became increasingly more important during these times. I noticed, in my neighbourhood, we were now more inclined to slow down to talk and check in when we chanced upon each other, instead of the usual hurried greeting on the way to an appointment or to run an errand. We also formed a local support group to ensure older and vulnerable neighbours were able to get groceries and medication -it was clear to all what we needed to do and why. I believe we became more connected in our community because of it. And I think we found that people are inherently kind, when given a chance – I’m with Rutger Bregman on this. Caring about how well the person next to you is doing seems to be an antidote to otherwise stressful environments. It is also an under-rated survival strategy.

Spurred on by the need to find a way to reconnect once restrictions on physical distancing were relaxed, a small group of us founded a crafting group to encourage people to share their skills and to try sewing and other crafts. We want to develop connections between people of all ages, genders, abilities, and backgrounds, to promote wellbeing through these relationships and to promote sustainability through upcycling and repurposing the materials we use. It is (we think) the only group in the locality that actively works across the community in this way. 

And there’s anecdotal evidence to show it is working to support wellbeing and reduce the sense of isolation or displacement people are still feeling, even though lockdown restrictions have been lifted. We have members who have joined for companionship after a bereavement. Others have moved into the area and are living alone, unable to get to know their community well due to the pandemic restrictions. It’s also an enjoyable way for parents to discover new skills alongside their children. Having a purposeful activity to focus on helps everyone in some small way. Whatever the reason people join us, we want to foster creativity and appreciate we are all learning together.

Our experiences reflect the research on mental health and into ageing, which shows focusing on things you enjoy doing, volunteering, maintaining social connections with people of different ages, passing on skills and learning new ones helps us to thrive. 

It wasn’t the research that motivated us to set the group up though. It just felt like the right thing to do given what we could offer, the resources we had and what was important to us in that moment. I think we found that spark that comes from sharing a passion, aligning in our values, and working together to achieve it. 

Community presents itself in different ways. Sometimes we only truly appreciate it when other things are stripped away.

About the Author:

Chandima is a strategic problem-solver, coach, and facilitator with over 25 years’ experience in the energy sector. She coaches collaborative practice in energy, water, and the education sector, across functions and between organisations.

Chandima has a background in Applied Mathematics and holds a Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership from Bayes Business School, City University of London. She is accredited in the Resilience at Work® framework, an evidence-based approach to develop wellbeing, improve performance and enable innovation through aligning personal, leadership and team actions.



References and further reading:

Bregman, R. (2020) Humankind: A Hopeful History. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Morina, N. et al. (2021) ‘Potential impact of physical distancing on physical and mental health: a rapid narrative umbrella review of meta-analyses on the link between social connection and health’, BMJ Open, 11(3), p. e042335. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-042335.

Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2000) ‘Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being’, American Psychologist, 55(1), pp. 68–78. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.

Social Engagement’s Role In Brain Health (no date) AARP. doi: 10.26419/pia.00015.001.

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