Challenge Four: Get Connected

Growing up on the outskirts of a small town, the importance of home security was never really instilled in me as a kid. As far back as I can remember our home’s front door was kept unlocked. In fact, for most of my childhood I wasn’t even aware the door had a lock on it. Perhaps we didn’t have much to steal in those days, but I’d like to think it had more to do with the small-town sense of community.

Since our family had strong ties with all the people in the neighbourhood, there didn’t seem to be any reason to be concerned about a break-in. It turns out my family had good reason not to worry. When people have strong social connections within their neighbours, the local area tends to be safe.

Fast forward to today. Currently living in a three-story apartment building in Vancouver, my front door is almost always locked, even when I’m at home. While I am polite to my neighbours, the social bonds between us are weak at best. I’ve lived in my building for over six years, yet my neighbours are all but strangers.

Like in many cities, a lack of community connection in Vancouver is one of our city’s most pressing social concerns. According to a recent survey by the Vancouver Foundation, one-third of metro Vancouver residents do not know if their neighbours trust each other. Not exactly the ideal basis for fostering a safer community, nor a friendlier one. In fact, the same study found that one-third of Vancouver residents find it difficult to make new friends here. The study concludes that neighbourhood connections in Vancouver are “cordial, but weak.”

This got me thinking: how could we help bring some of that small-town sense of community to a big city like Vancouver? So for a month, I challenged myself to do one act a day to help strengthen social connections in my community, both within my immediate networks (so-called strong ties) as well as the community at large (weak ties).

Strong Ties are Your Foundation

“Strong ties” are all the close connections within your networks of family, friends, neighbours, and co-workers. Strengthening these bonds helps to improve your personal relationships with the people you interact with most regularly. Like the roots of a tree, strong ties provide a base of support that helps you to live a healthy, fulfilled and happy life. And just like the roots of a tree, strong ties need to be consistently nourished to provide a solid foundation.

So all month, I made sure that many of my daily acts focus on strengthening these strong ties. For example, one day I made a conscious effort to talk with my neighbours; another day focused on asking my professional colleagues about their life. Efforts to build up your strong ties don’t need to be monumental; even simple gestures done regularly can make a big difference to you and others in your life.

When strong ties are built up, people feel less isolated and have a stronger sense of belonging within their immediate social networks. This helps to improve people’s overall well-being and lowers the risks of depression and loneliness. Not only is this good for the individual, but it also helps the community at large since less strain is put on the public health care system. Residents are generally happier and healthier compared to those living in more disconnected communities.

The Power of Weak Ties

Not all your connections need to be close ones however. “Weak ties” are all the broader connections within your community. Some of these connections are with people you may know in passing (the local butcher, librarian or even a homeless person) while others are with people you may not personally know (a local artist, politician or a stranger you pass on the street).

Some examples of things I tried this month to help build weak ties include supporting the neighbourhood economy by shopping at locally owned businesses, attending community events and classes, checking out local indie artists, and simply being more conscious about smiling and saying hello to people on the street. I even wrote a letter to the mayor to thank him for making positive changes in our city. I didn’t receive a reply, but it felt good to put my gratitude in writing.

Strengthening these weak ties is important because it enhances the cohesiveness amongst all types of people in your community. When people have a strong sense of belonging to the broader community, they have more reason to get involved and contribute. Residents in connected communities are more likely to volunteer, participate in community events, vote, give their input about community issues, and support local businesses, arts and culture. The result is a healthier, more vibrant, and more engaged and democratic civic society.

A more cohesive community is also better equipped to manage problems and adapt to crises. Whether facing persistent social problems such as poverty, or sudden emergencies like a fire or flood, people in well-connected communities are more likely to come together to help and support one another. When weak ties are robust, communities can also leverage the power of group problem solving. A collective effort is usually more productive and effective than if people work in isolation. This is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Getting more connected in your community helps give you the sense that you belong, diminishes social isolation, promotes health and happiness, and can lead to more personal and professional opportunities. It’s good to know these efforts to build community connections not only enrich your own life, but also help to make the broader community a better place for everyone.

My acts to strengthen community connections performed in April, 2013
My acts to strengthen community connections performed in April, 2013

 

Focus on the Action, Not the Outcome

Not every act of kindness will produce a warm-and-fuzzy result. One Sunday morning I decided to surprise my fellow apartment dwellers with a small treat. I left a $25 gift certificate for the neighbourhood cafe in our building’s lobby, attached to a sign that read: “Hi neighbours, do you love your morning java? Treat yourself to a coffee at the cafe across the street. Please make sure to return the gift certificate for someone else to use after you’re finished. Enjoy!”

The gift card was taken within 30 minutes but it was not returned. Perhaps my neighbour didn’t see the request to return the card for someone else to enjoy? Though, it was kind of hard to miss. I wrote the sign with a big black felt marker and attached the card directly to it. Just in case, I left the sign up for a few days to appeal to the person’s better nature. No such luck, the gift certificate was never to be seen again.

The moral of the story: don’t let other people’s behaviours get you down. Rather than dwelling on the outcome, focus on the positive intent behind your actions – it is the only thing you can control.

One benefit of not being attached to the outcome of your efforts is that positive results are much more rewarding. Undaunted from the gift card fiasco, the next day I decided to write a thank-you card to our building’s property manager. I figured that most property managers only hear complaints or requests from their tenants, and so a note of gratitude would be welcome. I thanked my property manager for her hard work, responsiveness and attention to detail in dealing with all the past issues at my apartment. A couple of days later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a short, yet warm, note expressing her sincere gratitude for my card. These kinds of small, unexpected gestures really do make your day.

Take the Challenge

Want to try this challenge for yourself? Here are some suggestions:

  • Create the challenge – set the parameters for your challenge. My rule was to do a different act every day, and I made sure to focus on both strong and weak ties. You can adapt the challenge to reflect your own personal interests and constraints.
  • Brainstorm ideas – start the month by brainstorming a list of ways to strengthen connections in all areas of your life. To help get started, have a look at the 30 things I did to build community connections.
  • Build up your strong ties – strengthening the bonds within your immediate networks of family, friends, neighbours and co-workers helps to provide a base of support for a healthy and happy life. While it’s a good idea to nurture these close relationships every day, this challenge gives you a chance to be intentional about strengthening the ties with the people closest to you.
  • Strengthen weak ties – it’s also important to develop broader connections within your community. Strengthening these weak ties helps to create a more vibrant and engaged place to live, and can also help enhance your own sense of belonging within the local community. Be sure to include a number of acts that strengthen the weak ties within your community. For example, shop at locally owned businesses, attend community events, or get to know a homeless person in your neighbourhood.
  • Connect with people you don’t know – try including some acts that build connections with people you don’t know or may never meet in person. For example, buy something created by a local artist, write a letter of encouragement to a municipal politician, or simply strike up a conversation with a stranger. It’s good to know you can contribute to your local community in indirect ways too.
  • Stick with it – keep at it, even after the month is up. Remember: getting more connected will enrich your life and help to make your community a better place for everyone.