One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read was Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book’s focus is on how, in the last fifty years, people in America have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how many social structures, from bowling leagues and bridge clubs to the PTA and churches, have disintegrated, leaving much less social structure in their place.
The thing to remember is that the purpose of such groups isn’t to develop one or two lifelong friendships, but to develop social cohesion – a much larger roster of friends that you enjoy spending time with and sharing some of your resources with because you have overlapping interests. You meet up not because you’re best pals, but because you have some things in common. Sure, some individually strong friendships might develop, but social cohesion comes from having a larger number of individually less intense relationships – a cloth woven from strings rather than a rope or two.
What’s replaced that, for many of us, is a false sense of “social” structure. We fill our own homes with entertainment to distract us and find fault in our neighbors. We “touch base” with social media and texting, but rarely make actual time for each other. We use the internet to endlessly debate minor differences and keep raising the vitriol level to an unhealthy point. Most of the media changes of the last sixty years or so – television, the internet, cell phones – have made it easier and easier to not interact face to face while still maintaining a weak thread to other people, one that’s easier than ever to just quietly sever without noticing it. That, in the end, leaves us feeling lonely and isolated.
Throughout human history, humans have always congregated toward others, particularly those with common interests. We’re wired to do this because survival is easier as a group rather than by ourselves. On some deep biological level, we need to be around other people to maintain our mental well-being. That’s why loneliness is such a negative feeling.
On a deep level, many of us feel this sense of loneliness and lack of social cohesion, and whenever there’s a negative feeling inside of us, you can be sure that many businesses will pop up trying to “fix” that negative feeling. There are many businesses out there that strive to try to recreate that sense of social cohesion and give people a “tribe” to be a part of, whether it’s something like Crossfit or a martial arts school, a coworking space or a coffee shop, or even a church, which now seem to exist in every imaginable variety from large megachurches with arena seating to small groups gathering in what feels like a living room.
In many ways, all of those organizations and businesses are striving for the same thing: they want to fill that hole in people that’s created by the lack of social cohesion and loneliness.
The catch, of course, is that such organizations and businesses also often aim to extract money from your pocket at the same time. It costs money to hang out in a coffee shop or a bar or to use a coworking location or to join a martial arts school; even a church typically expects tithing. Those places do an excellent job of fostering community around a common interest, but they can really drain your finances along the way, as you’re essentially paying for staff to help facilitate that community and for the location with which to meet up.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a social group that comes with a cost to secure people and facilities. There are many situations where that’s good and necessary. However, it doesn’t need to be a requirement for such a group.
The question I’m really asking is how do you “find your tribe” and find that kind of social cohesion today without simply opening the wallet and paying for that kind of social cohesion? This is a question I’ve been trying to suitably answer myself for years, and here’s what I’ve figured out.
First of all, there are a lot more free social groups and organizations in your community than you might think. The problem is that it’s often a bit tricky to find them. There isn’t a place you can go to just get a list of every open social group in your town. You have to dig around for them.
Here are some great places to look:
+ The website for your city – look for the community calendar or a list of civic organizations
+ The website of the parks and recreation department for your city
+ The website of the local newspaper that covers your city – look for calendars of local events
+ The website of the library in your city – look for their calendar of activities
+ The websites of the nearest colleges and universities – again, look for their calendar of activities
+ The websites of businesses in your area related to your interests – see if they have calendars of in-store or community events
I live in rural Iowa and, following those steps, I was able to find dozens of potential groups to join and events that might coalesce into groups. Almost none of those groups come with costs – they’re usually organized by individuals doing it for pleasure and facilitated in public places or by businesses making the space available for promotional reasons.
What if you can’t find groups related to your interests? Start one. It’s actually not that hard. You simply need to secure a location for this type of meetup, which can usually be done by communicating with the local parks and recreation department or with businesses that might have space available and would be willing to let your group use that space, and then set a time and date and then promote the meetup as far and wide as you can. Share the information on every community group on social media, on every bulletin board you can find, and with local media as well. If there are any local groups even remotely related to the topic, share it with them, too. Come prepared to make things work in the way you’re envisioning – for example, if it’s hobby related, bring along plenty of things related to the hobby.
If you do start such a group, remember this: you may be needed to keep the ball rolling sometimes, or it may be that others take the ball and run with it. In either case, go with the flow. You’ll definitely need to nudge it along at the start, but if things go well, it will find a life of its own. Don’t hesitate to ask others to help by promoting the group or bringing new people or securing locations or whatever else needs to be done.
After a while, you may want to start hosting regular events yourself for smaller groups. Over time, I moved from attending some community game days to actually hosting a regular game day at my home for a rotating group of people. While I still participate in the larger community group (numbering 50-100 people), the people I invite are interested in a smaller niche (longer strategic games) – a tribe within a tribe, you might say. I’m also a part of a smaller book club after participating in larger book groups at the local library.
These steps have led me to have good friendships with a wide variety of people in my local area without spending a lot of money for it. I have good social connections with more people in my life right now than I have had at perhaps any other time in my life, including college, and it’s largely because I put in the effort to find these kinds of groups and, in a few cases, launch them myself.
Finding your tribe and finding the kind of social connection we all desire doesn’t mean you have to pay to go to Crossfit or hang out at a bar every night handing endless cash to the bartender. You just have to look around your community with an open mind and an open heart. Your tribe is out there waiting for you.