Community Engagement and Positive Mental Health

Humans are social creatures. Many of us prefer to laugh, sing, and dance in the presence of others (although a solo jam session is never a bad idea). Here at NoStigmas, we value the importance of community and mental health to improve our understanding of ourselves and others in efforts to make actions more meaningful and effective.

Start with “You” at the center. Think of all the relationships you have with your surroundings — family, friends, organizations, and even large scale ideologies. Children develop in environments rich with connection and develop as a result of these relationships as modeled by Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory 1 .

This network of people, places and ideas continues to grow in a dynamic way that constantly evolves in every direction over time.

This is how communities form. Community can mean anything from the people in your backyard to the ecosystem around you. For many, this sense of connection is what makes them thrive physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. It provides role models, offers belonging, and creates an avenue to explore ideas in a safe environment. Regardless of where you find your community, becoming a part of one is a major factor in being happy and balanced as noted by Martin Seligman - a leading psychologist and founder of “Positive Psychology.” Seligman outlines five key elements that craft wellbeing in his novel Flourish. These five elements are: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments (coined as PERMA). 2 Communities help foster exactly these characteristics to produce healthy and happy members of society.

Whether watching cat videos on Youtube or “linking” with a make-or-break business contact, the importance of connection is far from inconsequential. In fact, it has become more important than ever as our social networks have expanded virtually in order to identify and impact groups oftentimes beyond the scope of our physical reach. Actively growing one’s “social capital” online is just as valid as positive experiences that one engages in through the real world. 3 Although getting Facebook “poked” by your Grandma or followed by the latest Snapchat lifestyle guru might not be the most profound event to occur (or maybe it is, in which case, congratulations), this intimate connection can be the foundation for far more than just a smile.

Sometimes, however, being surrounded by others can get complicated, and we understand the spectrum of emotions involved in social situations. Paying attention to these feelings and working to cope with them in healthy and adaptive ways is what we advocate for.

Nonetheless, feeling isolated is sometimes inevitable and shouldn’t be overlooked. Social psychologist Dr. Kipling Williams and colleagues demonstrate exactly this in their 2003 Cyberball experiment. 4 The Cyberball Experiment involves a human participant playing a virtual “ball-tossing” game with two other players (who, unknown to the participant, are computer generated). Here’s the catch (so to speak): being ostracized by the other players over time led to feelings of not only isolation and frustration, but distinct changes in the human player’s brain regions linked to pain — real, physical pain. What this means is that even the perception of not being included was enough to bring about neurological signs of pain. The stress that comes from not being a part of the “in-group” can negatively impact how one’s body reacts at a physiological level, often linked to depression, anxiety, and mental health concerns. 4,5 It turns out that psychological wellbeing isn’t just “all in your head” after all; striving to create a sense of community can have profoundly positive influences for yourself and others.

The benefits of being included and connected to a community offer rewards that extend beyond simply networking with others or Instagram-ing the latest mythical Starbucks beverage; bonding in groups helps maintain physical and mental health.6 Engaging in collaborative spheres with like-minded individuals has been closely tied to positive health behaviors 5,6 — something we all strive for here at NoStigmas (and hope you will join us in pursuing)!

Contributed by Sorab Arora




Sources:

1Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. Readings on the development of children, 2, 37-43.

2Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Sydney: Random House.

3Oh, H. J., Ozkaya, E., & LaRose, R. (2014). How does online social networking enhance life satisfaction? The relationships among online supportive interaction, affect, perceived social support, sense of community, and life satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior, 30, 69-78.

4Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

5Thoits, P. A. (2011). Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. Journal of health and social behavior, 52, 145-161.

6Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51, S54-S66.

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