How to Create New Family When You Live Far From Home
Meaningful relationships are the No. 1 predictor of human happiness, according to an 80-year-long Harvard study. Yet, nearly half of Americans report feeling lonely, less than a quarter feel they can find companionship when they want it, and the health effects of loneliness equal smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
For city dwellers, the size, design and busyness of urban life can make connecting meaningfully even more challenging. If you can relate to the struggle to find community, you are not alone. Here are 17 ways to empower yourself to connect, deepen and extend your relationships to create family and a sense of belonging right where you live.
First up, connecting with yourself is key. Apps like Headspace and Calm can help you get centered and connect to your thoughts, feelings, body and environment before you start reaching out to connect to others.
Carving out even a few minutes each day to regroup amidst the avalanche of emails and honking horns can give you the energy you need to be present to the people around you. Whether on your commute, over a lunch break or before you step out the front door, getting in the right state of mind positions you for meaningful connections as you go about your day.
Leveraging Organic, Prior Connections
So, where do you even start with connecting? Try to identify the most likely people, groups and networks to tap for connection — ones you’re already affiliated with on some level. Does your mom have a friend who recently moved to your city? Maybe your college has an alumni chapter with happy hour events? Is there a political, cultural or faith-based organization with a branch nearby?
Easing your way into connections through a pre-existing link or a friendly face who has been in your city longer and can help introduce you to new people is often less overwhelming than figuring it out on your own from scratch. In her book, “Belong,” Entrepreneur and Community Architect Radha Agrawal helps readers find “portals,” or people in their networks who can help them walk through aloneness into connection.
Making Brand-New Connections
If you don’t have any prior connections to onramp through in your area of the city, try jumping into a wildly diverse offering of Meetup groups through the aptly named website or app. From hiking to board gaming to language learning, Meetups are taking place in nearly every city and provide a fun way to meet a variety of people, explore the city and try new things.
If it feels overwhelming to go alone, consider inviting a neighbor, coworker or coffee shop acquaintance to try one out with you. Not finding one that feels just right? No problem. You can also start your own Unicorn group of Jellybean Eaters or Taco Truck Crawlers through the platform.
Do you work remotely and spend lots of time in the company of your cat and computer? Maybe you transferred for a job and are looking for community-fostering spaces for meetings and team-building. Or perhaps you’re an entrepreneur looking to connect and collaborate around the focused, creative energy of others.
Joining a coworking space like Impact Hub or WeWork can provide an instant sense of community that strikes a balance between office formality and cafe casualness. If free, public options are more your style, your local library or park can be repurposed as productive spaces with high potential for getting to know locals face-to-face.
Connecting in Cafes
Starbucks must be on every city block by now, sometimes twice! You can intentionally connect with the staff and regulars even in the three-minute “latte window,” while you’re waiting for your drink. This is a great starting place. In most cultures people have used these all-accessible “third spaces” to welcome newcomers to the city as well as reconnect with neighbors and deepen bonds that, over time, can turn into family-like relationships. These public third spaces are also critical for blowing off steam from the home and work worlds.
In his sociological study of public spaces, “The Great Good Place,” Ray Oldenburg discusses the ways in which cities and suburbs have struggled since World War II to privilege third spaces in their urban design. But Starbucks and other cafes are making it easy for us to recapture Venti Connection one smile and hello at a time.
Connecting Through Local “Placemaking” Efforts
Organizations like Project for Public Spaces serve as a resource center on “placemaking” efforts around the world. From farmers markets to sidewalk art to adding more public benches, you can empower yourself to find or start exciting experiments to turn your corner of the city into a real community.
Building on the work of the community-based city planning pioneer, Jane Jacobs, you can click on the dot for your city and find projects and like-minded placemakers. Become a creative force in designing the delightful, practical urban spaces where community naturally grows wide and deep, and you’ll find yourself and your neighbors coming alive as you discover each other’s awesomeness.
Finding Communal Living Environments
Whether you’re living in a high-rise apartment, loft or backhouse, chances are you rarely see or communicate with your direct neighbors. Whereas a few generations ago it was common to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor, we are now more likely to (at best) fear being annoying or (at worst) being harmed. How do we begin to build friendly and trusting relationships with our direct neighbors?
The Art of Neighboring has a simple download for initiating block parties that you can adapt to your context. For those who are interested in communal living options in urban settings, check out the pilot Los Angeles efforts of Treehouse Co-living or the new efforts from WeWork, WeLive, now operating in New York and Washington, D.C. And for a creative DIY way to cut costs while sharing life, check out how single moms are coming together in Momunes!
Using Technology to Connect on Purpose
We’ve all heard the statistics about how technology can negatively impact our relationships, if we let it replace face-to-face interactions or hide behind its anonymity with ghosting or other behaviors we wouldn’t be as quick to do in person. But there’s also research that shows how our intentional use of technology to connect on purpose can actually strengthen both our face-to-face relationships and our out-of-town relationships.
Think of how FaceTime allows grandchildren to connect with grandparents, how WhatsApp and GroupMe keep people across the world or within the same neighborhood connected and how texting to check in on a friend can foster the kinds of regular, caring connection unknown to prior generations.
Connecting Interpersonally: Conversation Starters
People aren’t lonely because there are too few people around. If anything, in cities especially, there’s a feeling of overwhelm from the uncountable number of people zipping by. The problem is that we’re not slowing down to actually connect with each other. That 18 inches of space between you and the person in front of you at Trader Joe’s, or that 1 inch of space between you and the person on the bus, can end up feeling like a mile of separation.
Usually, all we need is the spark of a good question to initiate conversation with someone. For ideas on how to ask simple, fun questions appropriate to any context, look up Gary Poole’s book, “1001 Conversation Starters,” or check out this video, “7 Greatest Conversation Starters That Actually Work,” that includes, “Where is the restroom?” and “Where’d you get your shirt?”
The Heart of Connecting: Listening First
While all relationships start with simple conversation starters, it’s the act of intentional, deep listening that turns acquaintances into friends. Whether you have three minutes to offer a distraction-free, judgment-free listening space to someone, or whether you have an hour, Dr. David Augsburger, who wrote "Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard," tells us that, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”
How do we practice our listening skills? If you want to jump in the deep end, you can join the Urban Confessional Free Listening Movement to simply stand in public with a sign offering free listening to anyone who wants to be heard! “10 Steps to Effective Listening” was put out by Forbes as a technical guide, and other simple ideas include paying attention to the three layers of listening simultaneously: listening to your own thoughts and feelings, listening to the person in front of you and listening globally to your environment.
Building Trust Over Time Through Vulnerability
For acquaintances to turn into friends and friends to turn into family-like relationships, both people must risk being vulnerable at increasing depths over time. There’s no shortcut to building trust — it happens interaction by interaction as we take a little risk in sharing and see whether the other person engages or disengages.
The Community and Friendship thought leaders at Kitestring describe this process as making “trust bids.” Author Brene Brown is an expert on the power of vulnerability to deepen meaningful relationships, at home, work and play — check out her TED Talk to get inspired and equipped to let your guard down enough to give a relationship a chance to grow.
Civic Dinners That Change the World
A simple way to deepen and widen our relationships is to host or organize regular dinners with peers, acquaintances or neighbors. Getting to know each other around the table is one of the top ways humans bond historically and cross-culturally. The University of Oxford found that happiness and satisfaction with life rises the more often we share meals, while also noting the high number of meals that are eaten alone.
Organizations like Civic Dinners have taken the simple idea a step further to intentionally bridge the racial divide in local contexts by gathering together and having conversations that enable diverse people to share and understand each other and take joint action. So, whether you want to host a gathering or simply grab a coworker for lunch outdoors, eating together brings you together.
Volunteering Creates a Deeper Sense of Belonging
Getting to know the needs of your neighborhood and using your skills and passions to help has been found by Burnaby Neighbourhood House and others to facilitate deep connection. Coming together with diverse neighbors around a common goal of service creates natural opportunities for meaningful conversations that easily translate into ongoing relationships. Beyond weeding a neighbor’s lawn, picking up trash in the park or babysitting for a working mom, local schools, libraries and neighborhood councils are great starting points for pitching in and embedding yourself in a network of do-gooders.
Local chapters of the Red Cross, Humane Society, YMCA and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America have long-standing traditions of training volunteer corps for high local impact. Gathering a small group of acquaintances, coworkers or neighbors to volunteer together goes even further in creating deeper bonds both within the group and beyond it.
Random Acts of Kindness Foster Relationships
Ready to get creative and have fun making your community a place of belonging, one random act of kindness at a time? Buying coffee for the stranger in line behind you at Starbucks, giving up your parking space for someone in a bigger hurry and simply wishing the customer service agent a lovely day can help us find each other through our fogs of busyness and distraction. One smile is the beginning that can radically change everyone’s experience of the daily grind.
Surprising each other with unnecessary acts of kindness at home, work, school and around town creates a magical space for young and old to spark connection. Through the organization that popularized the idea of random acts of kindness, you can also become a RAKtivist dedicated to furthering kindness in all your worlds, making it simple and inspiring to find an immediate tribe of people committed to doing the good things right where you are.
Scheduling for Relationships
Relationships take time, and there’s no fast-forward button. In the same way we block off time for meetings, the gym and school pick-ups, setting up times for meaningful connection throughout the week will protect your time and energy from being hijacked by yet another to-do list item. In fact, prioritizing people will help you stay balanced, keep perspective and feel supported in the midst of the tornado of tasks.
Beyond time-blocking, consider where you already have “windows” of time — maybe on your commute, standing in line or waiting on hold. Who can you FaceTime or text during those times? Face-to-face time is crucial in facilitating deep relationships, so maybe you can buddy up while doing errands or arrange for tea at your house once the kids go to bed. Telling your friends that you are scheduling them in on purpose will show them how much you value them and your relationship.
Having Hope and Expressing Gratitude
Not everyone you interact with is going to become your best friend. Having a realistic yet optimistic attitude toward reaching out will keep you from getting discouraged and giving up when the inevitable disappointments happen along the way. Even one positive interaction will keep your hope levels high enough to keep you surfing the unpredictable responses of everyone you initiate contact with!
Letting your new friends know that you care about them, value the relationship and are grateful to be getting to know each other can reassure the other person of your intentions and foster trust. And when a relationship hits a rough patch, focusing on the good in the relationship and expressing your gratitude for the value the relationship brings to your life, can help both people choose to work through the problem and come out stronger than ever.
And Don’t Forget to Get Gritty
Grit, “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal,” is the common trait of high-achievers across industries, according to Dr. Angela Duckworth’s research. If you make family-like relationships and belonging as the No. 1 goal, you can see why developing grit is key. The ability to hang in there, keep working at it and not give up is what keeps relationships deepening through changing seasons, inevitable miscommunications and mistakes.
Most things worth having require effort, so perhaps we should expect and celebrate that the biggest treasure we have — each other — would require the best efforts we have.