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Why community matters so much — and how to find yours

A community can serve as a social safety net, but finding one and becoming a part of it is different from simply making friends.

Illustration of a flock of cute cartoon birds singing while walking in a line. Getty Images

Sam Zeff had always considered himself a pseudo-runner — a guy who’d go for a jog somewhat consistently but who never signed up for a race. There was always a part of him that was afraid he wouldn’t be accepted among other runners. Finally, Zeff, now 31, embraced the fear head-on and joined the Philadelphia chapter of November Project, a community-oriented fitness group. Instead of rejection, Zeff found a supportive group of athletes of all levels whose hard work inspired him to finish his first marathon in 2019.

Since then, Zeff has joined other organizations based on his values: a group for men to discuss their emotions, and a virtual mentorship program where members of all ages from across the world offered insight and advice on how to live more authentically. Not only have these communities empowered him to explore different parts of himself, but he entered into a mutually beneficial relationship with people who celebrated him just as he celebrated them. “I always felt like I was too much and like I was doing things to get attention,” Zeff says. “The people in this group have been fanning my flames rather than trying to put them out.”

Now, as he plans a move across the country from Philadelphia to San Clemente, California, he’s relying on his ability to find community once more. He’s reaching out to other members of his groups who’ve moved to California and also mining his interests, like yoga and meditation, to figure out which classes he should take in his new city. Community, he says, is proof he’s an essential gear in a larger social machine. “You’re part of a bigger picture that really wants to see everyone succeed,” Zeff says.

As social creatures, humans need interpersonal contact to survive. These connections range from your inner circle of family and close friends to the outer rungs of your social network — other pet parents at the dog park, for example — and it’s important to have this variety. “To try and count on one person to fill all of your emotional and psychological needs is not a good thing,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness at the University of Sussex. “There’s research showing that you thrive more when you have lots of people to fill up various emotional needs.” Becoming a member of communities helps build this social diversity. However, finding community is much different from just making friends.

According to clinical and community psychologist David McMillan, a community is defined by four criteria: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. To be part of a community, you must feel a sense of belonging (membership), feel like you make a difference to the group and that the group makes a difference to you (influence), feel like your needs will be met by other group members (integration and fulfillment of needs), and feel that you share history, similar experiences, time, and space together (shared emotional connection). High school, college, and retirement communities, McMillan says, are examples of community: “In college, the world is organized around satisfying you,” he says. From extracurricular activities to communal living, the entire experience centers around group collaboration and satisfaction. While a community can consist of pairs or small groups of friends — and help foster those connections — community members don’t necessarily need to be friends.

In contrast, friendship “is an invested, dedicated, platonic relationship where two people who are friends with each other are committed to the growth, the well-being, the support, the thriving of each other,” explains Kat Vellos, a connection coach, speaker, and author of the book We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships.

Fellow community members can lend a hand in unique and surprising ways. A neighbor can lend you the oddly specific pan you need to try a new recipe. An older person in your book club may have valuable insight into how to handle a conflict with your in-laws. You could find the résumé proofreader you’ve been looking for in another student in your cooking class. “When people talk about a 401(k) or insurance, community is that for your social life,” says Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a workplace-belonging speaker and author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness. Think of it as a group of people who uplift one another and form a safety net for all of life’s moments.

Crucially, community is not strictly a collection of people who have a similar affiliation, interest, or shared experience with each other, Vellos says. While fans of certain shows or musicians — or even consumers of specific products, like Peloton — may feel they are members of a community, they are not always invested in other members’ lives and well-being. (Fans or followers would be more appropriate terms for many of these groups, Vellos says.) While many communities exist online, there must be an element of reciprocity — all parties contributing information and support equally — for the group to thrive.

Finding and becoming ingrained in a community doesn’t need to be an arduous task, but it does require time and self-reflection. Vox spoke with four experts who provided tips on how to identify and find your place in a community.

Prioritize your values and interests

One of the easiest ways to find a group you’d mesh with is to figure out where you wouldn’t mind spending a few hours of your time. Consider your talents and interests or a skill you’d like to learn, and seek out places to do those activities. If you love dancing, do some Googling to find dance clubs, studios, or meetup dance groups in your town. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to throw clay; a pottery class will put you in contact with others who value art, working with their hands, or learning a new skill — and you could specifically seek out a studio that hosts social events or otherwise attempts to facilitate wider connections.

Poswolsky suggests seeking out groups that create together; the act of making something as a group facilitates closeness and brings you into contact with people of different ages, backgrounds, and stages of life. Whether it’s a performance or a neighborhood coat drive, anything you’re creating together “is a beautiful way to build community,” Poswolsky says.

Neighborhood associations, religious and spiritual groups, and charitable organizations typically hold frequent meetings you can attend to learn about the group’s mission, meet others, and volunteer at future events. Knowing what your values are is crucial to finding a community where you truly fit, Poswolsky says, and that can take work and soul-searching. If you’re not religious but have strong political views, joining a political organization can help you find a community where you and others are working to promote change that aligns with your collective values.

While it’s easier to join an already established group, you could also start one yourself based on your interests. If you want to build a community around hiking, for example, McMillan suggests posting online (say in a neighborhood Facebook group or retirement community portal) mentioning you’ll be hiking in a nearby park on Saturday if anyone would like to join. Others looking to make connections and get outside may take you up on the offer. Start small: Your budding community doesn’t have to be hundreds deep. “Real nurturing community starts in small groups,” McMillan says. “It doesn’t start with 100 people, it happens with a few. Finding those people and cultivating their interests and your interests … that’s harder in a big group.” And don’t panic if the first people who show up differ from you in terms of age, background, or ability. Part of the beauty of community is its ability to draw people from varying stages of life who can help open your eyes to new points of view and wisdom.

Make it a habit

To forge a true connection with the group — and vice versa — you’ll need to continually show up and add value. “You’ll develop closeness more quickly if you have that regularity and you don’t have to agonize over scheduling,” Vellos says. Immediately add the next meeting date to your calendar and make it a point to consistently attend. Coming early with a snack or staying late to stack the chairs shows you’re invested in the community.

Humans have more positive feelings toward familiar people, so seeing the same people on a repeated basis helps you both ingratiate with an already established group and with people you see regularly in your day-to-day life. Even if you don’t interact with the baristas or other patrons at your neighborhood coffee shop, there is an unspoken sense of camaraderie. “You can feel like you know someone even if you’ve never talked to them if you’ve seen them enough times,” Sandstrom says. Focusing on your already established routines and the people you encounter while doing them — like walking the dog — can be the basis for community. “If you go at the same time to the same place, you’re going to see the same people over and over again,” Sandstrom says. Even learning the names of fellow dog walkers and striking up a casual conversation can be enough to improve your mood.

Put energy into others

Because communities are made up of lots of people with varying opinions and life experiences, being an active member means regularly interacting with others in the group. But don’t expect other members to immediately support you in your endeavors, want to do you a favor, or even engage in conversation with you. Forging these connections takes time and effort, and you risk rejection, McMillan notes — but to fully integrate into a community, you can’t be a wallflower. “It’s my job to put energy into other people and not just wait for them to put energy into me,” he says.

When Sandstrom joined a community orchestra, she made a point of talking to a different person each time the group took a break in order to ease her way into the group. She’s also a fan of eavesdropping. “It’s okay to admit that you overheard people talking,” she says. If you catch a few people at yoga class discussing your favorite podcast, take that as an opportunity to jump into the conversation and meet a few people in the process.

Poswolsky suggests identifying one or two community members you’re interested in getting to know better and asking if they’d like to have coffee. “Those simple gestures of reaching out create intention, they put out what you’re looking for, and they don’t overwhelm you,” he says. “Suddenly, other people are going to be inviting you to things because you’re saying, ‘I’m going to take the time to have a conversation with someone.’”

But don’t exhaust yourself

You don’t need to join a dozen clubs or societies or introduce yourself to every neighbor on the block to have a community. Consider the time you’re able to commit and how much energy you’re able to bring to each meeting. Maybe becoming the organizer of a weekly canoeing group is too great a responsibility, but a monthly movie club where you can sit back and watch and discuss films is more your speed.

Each new person you meet at your local mutual aid organization might not blossom into a deep friendship — and that’s okay. The goal of community building isn’t necessarily to make new friends (though that definitely can happen), but to build a network. The people who are a part of that network can remain acquaintances, Sandstrom says.

This is Sam Zeff’s approach as he considers his community-building plan in California: focusing his energy toward worthy people and causes. The rest will come naturally. “I’m not married to having to be everyone’s friend,” he says. “I’m going to be intentional with my time and make sure that the people that I am investing my time with are the individuals that I see as part of my future who can not only help me grow, but people who are willing to be helped as well.”