Why finding your tribe is the fastest route to happiness

Posted by for Life

What’s the number one thing that can make you feel joyful? It’s not gin. Or cheese. It’s feeling like you’re part of a community.

Curiously, the old-fashioned C term that is ‘community’ has become one of the hottest buzzwords of 2019. More than anything, we want to belong.

But for every year millennials have been alive, community life in Britain has become increasingly fragmented, according to a BBC report. Which of us still lives in the area we grew up in? There are more solo than shared households, and out-of-reach property prices mean we feel less rooted in our homes. Social scientists use these factors to calculate our level of ‘anomie’, or feeling of not belonging.

We are, however, finding new ways of belonging. We may have fewer communities based around geography and traditional beliefs, but the definition of what a community is and can be has changed. We have communities united by interests; brands talk about community; online forums refer to themselves as communities; you may have a community based on who you actually are (as part of the LGBTQ+ community, for example).

We know, emotionally, why belonging matters. We all know how it is to feel alone or left out. But what is it that makes us feel that way?

“Connection is an essential human need, as vital as food or water,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg, co-founder of the #iminyourvillage campaign, which provides online support for new parents.

Evolutionarily speaking, humans exist today not because we are bigger and stronger than the animals we hunted, but because we banded together as a tribe. Just as bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe.

“From our very first interactions as babies with our mothers, we are striving for connection all the time,” adds Dr Svanberg. “Even though traditional communities are dying out, we’re looking for new ways to connect with people. Community is important because it fulfils our dual need to understand others and to feel understood ourselves.”

Illustration of women
“Anyone here enjoy the music of SZA? Yay! It’s not just me!”

It’s also vital to combat the effects of loneliness. A recent study by the British Red Cross and the Co-op found that nine million of us often or always feel lonely. What’s more, loneliness has been found to be contagious, according to a study published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology. In a 10-year study of 5,100 people, researchers tracked a distinct path as negative feelings spread through social contacts. Our society has become one of the most isolated in human history, second only to the United States.

When we think of loneliness, we may imagine an elderly person who lives alone. But the reality is much closer to home. “I can tell you, as a practising GP, I see a lot of young people, particularly around the age of 30, who are lonely,” says Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of The Stress Solution.

When we become disconnected, he explains, our stress response goes up. Why is that? “We feel vulnerable,” he says. “Our evolutionary brain instinctively tells us we are in danger.”

Dr Svanberg agrees. “There is growing evidence that conditions medics thought of as mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and psychosis, are rooted in feelings of disconnection.”

In fact, being part of a community may actually extend your life expectancy. In a systematic review of scientific studies on loneliness, looking at data from over 3.4 million participants, evidence shows that, “people who feel, or are, socially isolated are at about a 30% higher risk of early death”, according to an NHS report. Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who led the study, said the effects of loneliness are comparable to the effects of smoking, obesity or alcohol abuse – all grave issues for public health. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously,” she said.

Now, as we move around more, we’re seeing an explosion of new tribes based around activities, belief systems and brands. Read on to discover the communities shaking up society – for everyone’s good…

Spiritual tribes

Traditionally, religion has been a cornerstone for communities, but a 2018 study of 16- to 29-year-olds by St Mary’s University found that 70% did not identify as belonging to any particular faith. In this absence, different types of spiritual communities are growing.

“We’ve broken away from religion because our values are changing,” explains Anoushka Florence, founder of spiritual community The Goddess Space. “I wasn’t always into Wicca. I grew up in a traditional Jewish background but I couldn’t see myself in that god because he was male.”

Florence used Instagram to “call out for women like me”. Now the community is over 11,000 strong, with gatherings held everywhere from the Hoxton hotel in London to Oxfordshire’s Wilderness Festival.

Clare Gregory, who designs jewellery under the name Bonearrow, has also met fellow witches on Instagram and Facebook. “I’ve made friends I talk to every day,” she says. “It’s nice to have people you can ask for advice. Also, as there’s a common thread, it feels like a safe space to talk about other topics too.”

New spiritual practices also encompass meditation in sleek studios like Re:mind in Belgravia, London. While meditation can improve wellbeing, founder Yulia Kovaleva says community is even more important for health and happiness. How unifying can meditation be, given the majority of the class is silent? It’s the emotional experience that people want to share.

“After each class, people want to talk,” explains Kovaleva. “Sometimes serious issues come up and people open real vulnerabilities. We’ve all cried in our practice.”

Support groups

Adwoa Aboah and Holly Gore of Gurls Talk
Stylist guest editor Adwoa Aboah (right) and Holly Gore co-founded Gurls Talk 

While social media is frequently blamed for exacerbating loneliness, it can be a platform for something more meaningful. Gurls Talk began as an Instagram account in 2015, as founders Adwoa Aboah and Holly Gore encouraged women to share their stories around mental health. 

“I feel constantly inspired by our members,” says Gurls Talk spokesperson Anna Meacham. “The support and strength that exists within the community is unparalleled.”

Peer support groups are huge. Let’s Talk About Loss was started by Beth Rowland in 2016 after her mother’s death. Initially it was just a few people in a pub in Nottingham, but there are now two branches in London and groups for everything from eating disorders to the care of Japanese denim.

People also use social media to form their own communities. “When I got sober in 2013 I found it very hard to locate my tribe,” says Catherine Gray, the author of The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober. She was part of sober communities and then moved on to set up her own, #SoberSpring, with Alcohol Change UK. “I needed other people who knew what not drinking was like, because my old friends didn’t quite get it.”

Fitness squads

Illustration of women swimming
Keen swimmer? Find your shoal

The huge uptick in exercise, from boutique gyms to events like Tough Mudder, means that whatever activity you’re into, your people are out there. Fitness-focused communities often also provide social and emotional support that’s equal to or stronger than family ties, according to one study from Northern Illinois University.

At spinning studio Psycle, swimming collective Swim Dem Crew and boxing den Kobox, the workout comes second to the community. “An instructor can motivate you, but it’s the energy of the others with you that pushes you on – all those endorphins create a giant positive buzz,” explains Pip Black, co-founder of cult fitness studio Frame.

Stylist’s marketing and PR manager Jayne Robinson is a Frame devotee. “What sets Frame apart is the sense of community,” she says. “I’ve met loads of like-minded people. Having just moved from Dublin to London, it was great.”

Another Stylist employee who found a fitness tribe is entertainment director Helen Bownass. “I love tearing about a netball court but what I live for is the time we, a diverse group of women, spend together in the pub afterwards.”

Brand disciples

Being sceptical, you might see words like ‘customer’ replaced by ‘community’ and assume it’s a shameless PR ploy by a profit-hungry business. But, as the extraordinary success of beauty brand Glossier proves, there is value in creating a genuine sense of connection between customer and company. Glossier calls product development co-creation – conversations with customers shape each product.

“People ask me, ‘How do you make your audience feel involved?’” founder Emily Weiss said in an interview with business website Fast Company. “I find that such a funny question, because we don’t make her feel involved. She is involved. It’s not a gimmick or a marketing tactic. We would be silly not to ask for her input to make a better product.”

Instead of hiring influencers with #spons, Glossier targets the most engaged and active people in its community. The idea is to create a network with brand awareness running from friend to friend – word of mouth in its most powerful form.

Sometimes communities spring up without the brand’s involvement. Fans of streetwear label Supreme use forums like Suptalk or Basement to discuss their obsession. The friendships spill over into real life. Previously, Supreme obsessive Hannah Alkindi told Stylist about camping outside the store before a new product drop. Her grandmother was horrified, “but these were my friends! I knew I was safe,” she said.

Adwoa Aboah
Adwoa has found her tribe

We’re celebrating Stylist’s 10th birthday in 2019 – and to honour the occasion, we’ve asked 10 of our favourite women to guest edit an issue of the magazine. Adwoa Aboah is our second star guest editor.

“I was talking the other day about how I want to join a football team,” Adwoa says. “I’ve met a few girls in a team who spend a lot of time travelling like me and they say, ‘I don’t know how to play, but the team has given me a community.’ It shows how important community is.”

See everything from Adwoa’s special issue here.

Illustrations by Erin Aniker. Other images: Getty Images / Sarah Brick 

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Kate Faithfull-Williams

Kate is an editor, health coach and author of The Feelgood Plan. She likes chocolate and working out in equal measure, and only ever drinks house wine. Her one mission in life is to find a yoga move that smooths out her iPhone claw hand. Follow her on Instagram: @katefaithfullwilliams