Remembering the importance of community in the age of individuality

Photo credit: Kali Ryder

It’s no secret that we’re living in an age of growing isolation. 79% of U.S. adults aged 18 to 24 reported feelings of loneliness in a survey conducted by Cigna. It’s gotten to the point where, last May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared loneliness the latest public health epidemic.

Humans are social creatures and are inextricably linked to one another. A sense of community provides a person with many benefits, the most critical being senses of belonging, purpose and support which can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. People have traditionally found a sense of community in their neighborhoods, places of worship, jobs, interest organizations or educational institutions. I like to think of your community as the people you accumulate as you go on living.

Murthy credits the decay of institutions like organized religion and extended family relationships combined with the prevalence of social media, societal polarization and the recent pandemic as causes of the crisis.

Beyond these factors, today’s young adults grew up in a time where efficiency and independence rule, and people are rewarded far more for individual achievement than for community involvement.

The recent resurgence of the “self-care” movement has only further contributed to this culture of self-sufficiency, promoting putting oneself first through solitary acts characterized by self-absorption that muddy the line between individualism and isolation.

While we continue to get caught up in the narrative of self-sufficiency and contribute to a culture where individuals routinely “put themselves first,” we stand to gain more by actively investing our time and energy into our community ties and our relationships with those around us.

The U.S. has always valued individualism, but what began as an idea centered around having the freedom to be ourselves and pursue one’s aspirations has been warped into an expectation of self-sufficiency. When faced with adversity, we retreat into ourselves instead of reaching out to others. Living in a state of excessive independence and focus on ourselves can transform into ignorance or egocentrism.

In Democracy in America, French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville expressed concern over whether the U.S.’s strong senses of individualism and entrepreneurship would result in a culture of self-interest and lead us to prioritize personal interests over the common good. He wrote that, in such a society, “each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

Individualism is vital to creativity and progress, and a strong sense of individualism has the potential to serve a positive societal purpose when balanced with a sense of community. There are times when turning to others for emotional or intellectual help will benefit us.

Individualism doesn’t thrive in isolation. It’s important that we all bring something unique to the table, but when we do contribute to conversation, our peers’ answers can serve to further develop and refine our ideas. When someone has the support of a community they can share their ideas and experiences with without feeling insecure, they can incorporate the perspectives of others to create something even better.

As college students, it’s easy to think of our universities as our communities, and while they can be, it’s also important to develop deeper and more personal associations within the complex ecosystem of a college campus. A 2007 intercollegiate study found a positive correlation between forming new high-quality friendships and with how well students adjust.

College students often feel there’s more emphasis on getting ahead and self-starting than there is on building and nurturing relationships or giving back to one’s communities.

When I entered college in 2020, virtual learning was the norm and I couldn’t form in-person connections on campus. Once I did have the opportunity and found the courage to step back into socializing and worked to build a community for myself on-campus, I felt my experience at university improve exponentially. A genuine sense of community among peers has even been connected to increased student retention rates.

The prevalence of technology and the constant connectedness that accompanies it have ironically led to increased social isolation in some aspects. While there is immense value in online communities, especially for people who are geographically far from one another, avoiding in-person interaction has become all too easy.

Research published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021 found that Americans in their early twenties average 28.5 hours per week on their phones, but there’s value in in-person interactions that can’t be replicated via technology.

“There’s really no substitute for in-person interaction,” Murthy said. “As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction.”

Canceling plans is as easy as sending a text and a skipped meeting can be recapped in a four line email. This is only exacerbated by the “self-care” excuse, where people often justify canceling plans in the name of setting boundaries, but in reality are weakening the relationships that will benefit them in the long run.

Bill Gates advised when speaking to students at Columbia University that “Some friends do bring out the best in you and so it’s good to invest in those friendships. And some friends challenge you about things you’re doing and that level of intimacy is great … it’s really worth the investment to have those people, as you’re always there to help them and vice versa.”

Going it alone might feel more comfortable in the moment, but the temporary awkwardness that accompanies forming new connections pays off in the long term. The complexities and unpredictability of human interaction allow us to build better lives and extend the scope beyond ourselves.

Pari Walter is the opinion editor and a senior studying journalism, psychology, ecosystem science and policy and sustainable business.