11 Reasons To Start Building Community

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
’Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.
— Bill Withers, Lean on Me

I didn’t realized the value of my community, my friends and loved ones, until I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This is when, at my most vulnerable, my friends, and even friends of friends who were as yet unknown to me, showed up for me in a big way (you can read the rest of my story here). They, collectively, led to me to discover that I had the power to heal myself. This eventually became the Health Warrior Way, the beginning of the healing of my body, my mind and my soul, and my purpose: to help people take control of their health and well-being.

I continue to be humbled at the power of community to heal, to hold and to witness. I now pursue connection wherever possible, to be part of this virtuous circle of community, giving and receiving love and compassion and helping people reach their full potential.

Without really knowing it I’ve been at this community-building thing for 54 years and counting. My community includes people I’ve known for over 40 years as well as people I’ve only met in the past few months. It includes people I see regularly and others with whom I only touch base on occasion, maybe only a couple times a year. It includes family that I am intimately connected to, by blood, and it includes others that I’ve come to think of as family, brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews that are walking a similar path and who are looking to build a connected life with other engaged, present people.

It takes work to stay connected to other people, to build and deepen and sustain friendships. There are expectations to meet and commitments to keep. It is sometimes inconvenient, and there are times when we give more than we receive. This is part of the bargain, but it's worth it. Here are 11 reasons why:

  1. Friends could very well extend your life: a 2010 study showed that people with strong social relationships increased their odds of survival by 50%, which is about the same as quitting smoking and is twice as beneficial as physical activity in decreasing your odds of dying prematurely.

  2. Friends will keep you healthy: while a healthy diet and physical activity are obviously good for us, it’s less well understood that strong social connections can also protect us from unhealthy conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and inflammation.

  3. Friends can keep your mind engaged: a 2012 study done in the Netherlands showed that adults between the ages of 65-86 who felt lonely were 1.64 times more likely to develop dementia than people who didn’t identify as lonely. Earlier studies demonstrated that those adults who had a stronger social network were less likely to suffer from premature cognitive decline.

  4. Friends will help make you the best version of you that you can be: friends — real friends, good friends — want to see you excel and will do everything they can to help you succeed. They will cheer you on as you do your thing, they’ll give you a helping hand if (when!) you stumble and they’ll help you celebrate important milestones along the way. And, crucially, they’ll tell you when you’re not living up to the standard you set for yourself.

  5. Friends will give you a shoulder to lean on when you need it most: while it’s an existential truth that we’re born alone and we die alone there are a lot of people in between that make life worth living. Some of those people will be there for you, if you let them, when you need a sympathetic ear or an arm to lean on.

  6. Friends will give you a reality check: real friendship means listening, even if some things are difficult to hear. Because part of endeavoring to the be the best version of you that you can be is hearing from those that know you best when you’re falling short. These are the people that love you most, and they will keep you humble and be a constant reminder of where you come from and where you’re headed.

  7. Friends are a buffer against chronic stress: A 2011 study of fourth-graders showed that friends helped kids cope with the stress of being picked on or rejected by their classmates. The stress hormone cortisol was elevated in kids who were excluded by their peers, but was less prevalent in kids who had more and higher quality friendships.

  8. Friends will hold you accountable: when you have an intention or a goal and you’re not sure you’re up to the challenge of reaching it tell a good friend (or three). Ask them to check in on you to see how you’re doing. This will make it more likely that you’ll undertake the hard work, that you’ll be willing to venture outside your comfort zone, that you’ll be willing to persevere through the inevitable adversity; you won’t want to let your friends down.

  9. Friends will give you a sense of belonging and purpose: friendships don’t exclusively benefit us; they also provide an opportunity for us to give back, to serve, to mentor, to witness. Being a good friend is as important as having good friends A single thread can be woven into several stitches, becoming the fabric of your community.

  10. Friends will strengthen your immune system: A 2006 study established the influence of “negative emotions” (anger, envy, despair, etc.) on the immune system. And because inflammation, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and even periodontal disease, “can be directly stimulated by negative emotions and stressful experiences,” the authors of the study made a compelling argument that close personal relationships may enhance health “through their positive impact on immune and endocrine regulation” and by diminishing negative emotions.

  11. Friends will make you happier: according to the Framingham Heart Study, if you surround yourself with happy people you are bound to be happier yourself, and to radiate happiness out into your community in a beneficent network effect. But don’t wait for friends to come knocking on your door; the same study also showed that people who see themselves as a leader in their social circle and actively build relationships are happier than those who see themselves as outsiders.

Friendship is a sheltering tree.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge