7 Ways to Foster Community in a Digital Age

If there’s one thing the last year and a half has shown us is, it’s that we are living in an increasingly digital world. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us were already settling ourselves into a steady and even comfortable relationship with online shopping, food delivery and rideshare apps, and workplace software systems designed to maximize efficiency and minimize margins of error. Everyone seems to have Facebook and Instagram accounts now, and even people we haven’t seen in years can find us, add us, and comment on all of our family and vacation photos.

So what does this digital future really mean for the future of personal connection and community?

Human beings have always been social by nature. We are communicators, searchers and innovators who have historically been ever-curious about discovering new things, exploring uncharted places, and learning from one another. We feel strength and safety in numbers, and we can often feel lost or left out when we’re alone. We build fires to tell our stories around, and impressive structures in which to discuss our thoughts, opinions and beliefs. We’ve seen first-hand that “many hands make light work,” and we believe that great things can be achieved whenever we work together.

Even today, in many parts of the world, the communities we were born into are still the ones that we feel best define who we are. Other communities we find or build along the course of our lives have helped give us a sense of purpose, confidence, or healing as well. However, with the rise of social media in particular, so many of our communities have moved away from an in-person model to an online one, and while our younger generations have never known a time without handheld and immediate access to an endless universe of technology, the rest of us may find ourselves wondering why plugging in and signing on can often leave us feeling less connected.

The most common definition of “community” is a group of people living in the same place or having certain characteristics in common. That may sound pretty broad by today’s standards however, since many of us do not live in the same cities or even the same state as our family members, and while we often see the same neighbors at the local grocery store or on our drives to work, we may not feel we have much, if anything else in common with them. These days, we turn to social media and online news outlets to find and engage with others we feel are “like” us, and yet the lack of responsibility these digital relationships carry can leave us feeling eager to please, or anxious that we might miss out on something.

How can we strike a balanced chord in our lives? How can we have the best of the old and the new? Is it possible to foster and maintain authentic, resilient and responsible communities in an age where face-to-face, one-to-one time is limited, and inviting everyone over for a barn dance is a much less likely, albeit no less lovely, option?

To start, here are 7 practices you can incorporate into your everyday life in order to grow and maintain a healthy sense of community along your modern journey:

1. Have Gratitude

Gratitude journals have been a familiar concept for a while now, and there’s a good reason for that. Studies have shown that simply writing down three things you feel grateful for before bed can improve your quality of sleep and give you a better chance of waking up feeling positive in the morning. When your outlook on the day ahead is brighter, you’re more likely to seek out positive relationships as well as contribute to them in a more fulfilling way.

2. Remember Purpose

In our fast-paced world,  it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the tasks of our daily responsibilities. Sometimes we even forget the reason we decided to do the things we do in the first place! Try taking a moment or two as you go about your routine, and remind yourself of the ways each action is helping a greater goal. For example, washing the dishes, as mundane as it may seem, is serving the greater goal of having a clean, organized kitchen in which to prepare your next meal. It may also give you a sense of pride in your home space which boosts confidence and encourages productivity. When we take a moment to remember the larger purpose behind the little things we do, we’re more likely to appreciate the help and generosity of others as well.

3. Offer Belonging

Community is not always something you find, but something you can build yourself and invite others to join. Try writing a letter or making a phone call to someone you love, and thank them for being a valuable part of your community. Perhaps give them an example of a quality they have or a kindness they’ve shown you that makes you grateful to include them in your inner circle. Taking the time to offer belonging to someone else will not only make their day, but it will also give you a renewed understanding of your power to create and nurture valued relationships that last.

4. Be of Service

Offering your time to volunteer for a local cause you believe in is a great way to foster some in-person community close to home. Not only will you be offering valuable assistance for good, but you will also have the opportunity to meet and work side-by-side with other people in your area who care about similar things. (Fun fact: this one checks both boxes of the “community” definition!)

5. Share Yourself

Some of the most notable inventions, discoveries and memorable works of art were made possible when many minds came together to collaborate. By making it a habit to share your ideas, personal goals, and even your big-picture dreams, you simultaneously invite others to do the same; you never know what wonderful new things you might learn in the process! Even a small act of opening up and encouraging conversation and creative collaboration can add a deeper sense of authenticity and vulnerability to your relationships and most trusted communities.

6. Practice Self-Care

Health studies show that a sense of belonging can strengthen the immune system, lower your risk of heart disease, and even improve your “bounce-back” in difficult or painful times. Many of us spend so much of our time in front of screens, however, that we don’t always make extra time for things like a good night’s rest, a long bath, a meal with an old friend, or a walk in nature with the family. By adding at least one self-care activity to your week, you make the commitment to recharge your batteries which will only make you a much more beneficial contributor to your communities both at home and online.

7. Embrace Adversity

In our current political climate of polarized opinions, information and emotions, it’s no surprise that discord is often considered the enemy of community. However, when we work through our differences together, discuss things we might see differently, and listen with thoughtful attention to one another even when we disagree, those initial feelings of adversity actually serve to strengthen our communities, deepen our bonds, and develop lasting trust and respect that can buoy us through future times of hardship as well. How might you support brave communication and respect in your everyday interactions, and thereby inspire others to follow your example?

As we continue to move deeper into the digital age, and watch as our relationship with technology becomes even more far-reaching, it’s important to remember the many useful advantages this new landscape offers our sense of community as well. Enhancements in health, safety, and education capabilities, a greater awareness for lives and cultures across the continents, and the increasing possibility for more flexible work schedules through remote options are all examples of silver linings to focus on.

To quote that all-too-familiar and perhaps overused phrase of the past year and a half, “We’re all in this together,” and from our community to yours, may we always seek out, develop and nurture valuable support systems and modes of meaningful connection wherever we go.

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