Author: Elizabeth Barrette
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #150
When people talk about “mental health,” they usually mean mental illness. We’re just starting to see studies on happiness, for example, but that forms the absolute foundation of everything else. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what “optimum function” looks like. So the first step involves understanding what makes a healthy mind.
Intentional communities directly address a lot of the reasons why people feel unsatisfied with mainstream society or develop mental illnesses from lifestyle stress. A good community provides a very healthy place to live. This should be one of our main selling points to attract new members, but we rarely look at it that way. Let’s consider some of the ways that living in community can nurture healthy minds, and what people can do to promote that.
People need people. That forms the basis of families and friendships. Intentional communities draw together people who cherish strong social connections. Contrast this to the mainstream, where people can easily lose touch with relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and others as their busy lives carry them apart.
Intentional communities help members to create and maintain close personal ties. Family units of various sizes and shapes find support in community. Large families enjoy the big public spaces. Single-parent families appreciate having other adults nearby and extra playmates for their children. Elders find company with close friends, even if their own relatives live far away. Single people may find a partner with someone of like mind. Everyone gets to hang out with neighbors, encouraging friendships.
Consider what your community does to support kinship. What kinds of family structures do you have? How do your buildings and other facilities encourage people to gather and interact? Have you celebrated marriages, births, and other special occasions in community? How do you resolve conflicts between people? What steps do you take to help new members weave themselves into your web of relationships?
Food, shelter, and clothing are commonly listed as the basic requirements for life. Health care is another. These typically require some kind of financial security, most often a job. In today’s world, employment is often precarious—and losing a job can easily lead to losing health insurance, housing, and other vital resources. This tends to make people anxious, especially if they lack a social support network to help them through emergencies. That anxiety can cause or worsen a wide range of mental and physical complaints.
Living in community fosters a sense of security. Older communities with a decade or few of history have an edge here. Younger communities can set this as a goal, establishing traditions and working to create a stable lifestyle. On-site employment offers another advantage; members are unlikely to get fired for trivial reasons or have their job transferred to a foreign country. Some businesses, such as green construction or farming, produce goods for the community as well as income. Similarly the housing situation is more stable. A large community may bargain for favorable insurance rates. People may benefit from a fellow member’s alternative health practice, too. Income sharing offers an option for buffering the financial peaks and valleys by sharing resources among members.
When people feel secure that at least their basic needs will continue to get met, that boosts their resilience in the face of challenges. How stable do you consider your community? What’s your turnover rate as members leave and join? How long does each member stay, on average? Do you have any community business(es)? Where do you get your food? What is your housing situation? How does your community weather sudden, unexpected expenses? How do you help members reach a state of security if they have problems? What are some traditions that characterize life in your particular community?
Most people equate education with school, and the mainstream world encourages this. People go to school, graduate, take jobs—and while they may get some on-the-job training, the amount of learning and exploration typically plummets. Furthermore, classes cost money and not everyone can afford that.
However, learning is a lifelong process. It lets us acquire new skills for fun and profit. It introduces new knowledge. In community, there is always something else to learn—and usually someone willing to teach it. Some communities have a formal education program where they teach group facilitation, gardening, yoga, or other topics to visiting students. Others prefer an informal exchange among members; if you want to learn cooking, you volunteer in the kitchen and the people who already know how to do it will show you.
Education enriches not just the lives of individual members but also the community’s total skill pool among its personnel. One experienced carpenter begets two apprentices, and pretty soon everything that needs fixing gets fixed pretty quick. What things have you learned from fellow members? What have you taught? What would you like to learn? If a new member lacks important social or practical skills, how do you fill in the gaps? How do you import skills or knowledge that no member has yet? Who are your best teachers and most enthusiastic students? Does your community have a formal or informal arrangement for teaching? Do you teach visitors or only members? Why?
People need to feel useful. They want to do something that matters. For most folks, this involves a career. Others find their fulfillment through volunteer work or raising a family. Certain hobbies, such as gardening and crafts, also produce something worthwhile. However, unemployment can pose a serious threat to productivity—it tends to make people feel useless and depressed, a growing problem in a time of low job security.
Living together means that there is always something productive to do, whether it involves cash or not. Some communities have their own business(es) or at least workspace for hobbies or home jobs. Most keep a list of chores, expecting members to sign up for some amount of community upkeep. Work parties are good for big tasks or seasonal projects. Raising vegetables, fruits, herbs, and even livestock contributes to the food supply. Maintenance and repair are ongoing needs. People in community also tend to share social tasks such as babysitting, helping neighbors who are sick or injured, and planning group events like parties.
Work keeps folks occupied, meets practical needs, and promotes feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. What opportunities for meaningful activity does your community offer? Do you have a garden, a workshop, a public kitchen, etc.? Can these entice visitors to become members? How are community needs identified and tasks divided? How are member skills acknowledged and used? How are people compensated or appreciated for their contributions? How much of the community’s goods and services do members produce? Who takes care of the social tasks? Who interfaces with the outside world? If a member loses an outside job, how does the community respond? If something doesn’t get done, or done right, what happens then? How important is a prospective member’s employment status or skill set in determining their acceptance?
Although individuals may choose to avoid religion, societies don’t. Large-scale attempts to remove religion from a culture typically end with people gravitating back to their religion (or a new one) later. Connection with the Divine seems like a consistent human need, and sharing spiritual activities with other people is extremely popular, although the details vary greatly according to time and place. Religious community used to provide one of the main anchors in a person’s life, but has become a more haphazard part of modern society. Not everyone likes the church they grew up with, and finding a better fit can prove challenging. Exploring various religions, however, expands knowledge and aids tolerance—whether or not the seeker settles on a particular path to follow.
Spirituality comprises one of the most popular focal points for intentional community. Certain types of community, such as an ashram or kibbutz, form around religious values and typically attract members who all belong to the same religion. They provide a peaceful place for spiritual growth. They usually establish substantial space for worship. Other communities focus on shared spiritual or philosophical ideals—such as nonviolence or service—but do not restrict themselves to a specific religion. Even communities with a secular vision tend to have at least some members with a spiritual bent, not all of whom may want to attend an off-site church. (For that matter, enthusiastic discussion of atheistic principles counts, too.) These may set aside a room or outdoor space for individual or small group prayer, meditation, or similar activities.
Spirituality enlightens the soul during times of peace and comforts in times of hardship. It helps pull a community together when members are born, get married, or die. Does your community have a spiritual focus, and if so, what? Where can members go to practice their beliefs? Do you have clergy? How do you approach the topic of spirituality with prospective members? What are your expectations regarding religious tolerance? If someone’s relationship with the Divine gets damaged, how do you deal with that? What kind of support do you offer for members seeking to deepen their relationship with the Divine?
Beauty is not just idle decoration, but a source of emotional nourishment. Different people find it in different things—colors, shapes, music, the architecture of buildings, paintings, sculptures, garden design, carefully prepared food, animals, other people. Making, observing, or otherwise enjoying beautiful things brings joy and contentment.
Each community expresses its personality through choices in decoration and design. Consider the different messages sent by a glittering geodesic dome of glass and metal, a rustic little strawbale house, or a big flat-walled condo covered with brilliant murals. One community garden might feature formal knotwork herb beds, another a prairie meadow. Sharing resources can give members access to a kiln, a forge, a woodworking shop, a painting studio, or other delights difficult to afford individually.
Not only does cultivating beauty make members feel cheerful and fulfilled, it also helps attract new members. This forms a particularly strong draw in communities that regularly host classes, workshops, or open houses when many guests will be walking through to see what the place looks like. How does your community express and celebrate beauty? What’s the first gorgeous sight that greets people on arrival? Are there spaces left for newcomers to add their touches, or is the place pretty full? What colors appear most widely—and are they planned or coincidental? Does your community have a consistent style, or is it eclectic? Where can members go to make things? Do you hold craft nights or classes when people can share activities? How do you celebrate each other’s talents?
Play counterbalances work. Everyone needs time to relax and have fun. Recreation includes everything from physical activities such as sports, dancing, or hiking to quieter pursuits like board games, reading, or puzzles. Movies, television, and music are popular for cultural interest. Some folks also enjoy traveling to museums, zoos, street fairs, concerts, and other attractions.
Member tastes determine what recreational facilities and equipment a community provides. One group might have every game under the sun in their common house, while another prefers several different sporting fields. Communities with a large land footprint may establish trails for hiking, bicycling, or horseback riding. A media room is a good way to encourage people to gather rather than hiding in private space with a television or computer game—and it also allows folks to pool resources for a bigger viewscreen and a nice library of movies and game cartridges. Storytelling, singing, and playing musical instruments all add fun to gatherings, too. A library offers quiet space and recreational reading. Ideally the offerings should span a variety of physical, mental, and emotional amusements.
Recreation gives people a chance to be frivolous and to make connections based on shared interests. How do members of your community spend their free time? Do they usually relax alone, or together? What resources does your community devote to entertainment? What new area or item do people want to add next? Do you have indoor and outdoor, active and sit-down options? When guests visit, do activities include some games or casual social time in addition to classes or other structured events? Does your community generally seem like a fun place to live?
Introspection and Outreach
Living in community makes it easier to live a balanced life, as long as your community is in reasonable working order. (A dysfunctional community is as destructive as a dysfunctional family, for many of the same reasons.) You may see it as a return to traditional values, or a glimpse of the future. A thriving community nurtures healthy minds by lowering stress, boosting happiness, and providing mutual support. Play to your strengths by exploring how intentional community can meet needs that conventional society may leave unfulfilled. Then build on that.
Take some time to discuss your community together. What is your history and your vision? How do those provide a framework for the community experience? How does your community offer its members opportunities for kinship, security, education, productivity, spirituality, beauty, and recreation? You might find it useful to list the available resources in each of those areas. Consider scoring yourself on personal life fulfillment in those too, and compare that to how well you feel your community is doing. What are the high points? What are the lows—and are those really lower priorities for you, or have they simply slipped out of attention? Does anyone feel that some of their needs aren’t getting met? What improvements could you make? How happy, secure, and satisfied are the members of your community in general? Does this seem to beat the average in the mainstream?
Finally, consider what your community has to offer, as it stands, to attract new members. Discuss and agree on two or three of your strongest points. Compare those to the complaints you hear from the mainstream culture, or from people who aren’t satisfied with their current community and seek a new one. (This is important: no community is good for everyone, nor is a given person right for all communities, so people need to find a good match.) Will your current strengths and attractions appeal to the kind of members you want? How can you describe, advertise, or otherwise promote your offerings to potentially interested people—especially those who might not know about intentional community yet, but would love it if they did? Once you understand exactly what your community does for you, then you can explain what it will do for future members.