Sense of Community from the Experiential Perspective.
The primary reason for my travels was to explore the communities where people live long, happy lives. A lot has already been said about these places in terms of their diets and lifestyles. But what about what gets them out of bed every day? What are the people’s connections to their community?
Research in hospital settings has suggested that elderly patients who have a plant that they get to care for every day live longer than those who simply have plants in their rooms that other people care for. Something as simple as getting up each day to water a plant keeps people going. Surely, having other people to get up for – and a community to contribute to, even in small ways, must have something to do with the longevity (not to mention the well-being) of these places.
In Costa Rica, it’s a simple life: do some early morning fishing, sit on the front porch a while, work in the garden, go to the store, chit-chat with the neighbors – add in a nap or two and you’re golden.
There’s a key piece to all of these daily activities though. They’re either done with other people, for other people, or through other people.
With: I rarely saw a local flyin’ solo. They run their businesses together, drive around together, go fishing together, eat together. Everything, with another family member or person in the community.
For: People live with their families – grown men with their moms, grandparents chasing the grandkids all day. Intergenerational living. Many of the daily activities done were to support one’s family or to help other members of one’s tight-knit community.
Through: Most everything is “local”: made, grown, bought, shared, on a local level. And, people help each other out – no questions asked, because supporting one another supports the community. All of the daily activities I saw Costa Rican people participating in were done through someone they knew and who were a part of the community. Market transactions, making deliveries, buying lunch. Local, with local people. And, given the size of most towns (once outside of the city), everyone knows each other. Even in the city, though, there seemed to be a sense of connectedness that I have a hard time pinning down in the impersonal interactions of American culture.
Unfortunately, many of these beautiful aspects of Costa Rican culture are fading, being washed away by imports and the influence/infiltration of more developed nations – especially with the pressure to move to cities to support oneself, which is occurring in part because of the negative influences of outside culture and commerce on small, isolated towns.
An example of this sense of community is in the conversation I had (via a translator app) with a bread-maker I met in Monteverde. Edith lives in a small home in the hills with her son, JP, about a 40 minute walk outside of town. Edith and her 10 siblings (9 sisters, 1 brother – yikes!) were all born and raised in Monteverde. She used to be a banker, but now makes bread for all of the local hotels. One of her sisters comes to visit her every day, and her mom lives in town. Her dad helped to establish the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge – their family history in this small mountain town is deep and vast, as they’ve been involved in many of the environmental protection efforts in local businesses.
These two things – her job as bread-maker and her family – were her reasons to wake up every day.
This was similar to Japan. Though Japan is much more modernized, densely populated, and influenced by development, the intergenerational connectedness remained. I often saw three generations of one family having a pick-nick under the cherry blossoms at a given park, or visiting shrines together, or any other number of activities. And they were smiling the whole time.
The way I saw it, people’s communities in these places – including their extended families – got them out of bed every day and contributed immensely to their well-being.
Sense of Community from the Community Psychology perspective.
SOC is “The sense that one is a part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships” (Sarason, 1974, p. 1). It includes the following four components (McMillan & Chavis, 1986):
- Membership: A feeling of belonging or a shared sense of personal relatedness. It includes boundaries, emotional safety, sense of belonging and identification, personal investment, and a common symbol system.
- Influence: A sense of mattering, of making a difference to the group, and of the group mattering to its members. It includes elements of both conformity and influence, each of which contribute to community cohesiveness.
- Integration and Fulfillment of Needs: A feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources they receive as a function of group membership. Needs are often based upon shared values among community members.
- Shared Emotional Connection: A commitment to and belief that members have shared (and will continue to share) history, common places, time together, and similar experiences. It requires personal investment in the group as well as a spiritual bond.
In reflecting on my time in Costa Rica, I see all of these elements permeating the communities I encountered. And I feel it in the experiences of community I had before my big adventure. Where has it gone?