Community participation is an important part of social fitness optimization. A strong sense of community and belonging can help you and your military family stay healthy, adapt to the frequent changes that go along with service, and know where to go when you need extra support. While community support can help Military Service Members manage the challenges of military life, the realities of that life (for example, frequent relocations) can also make it harder to actually grow those civic connections. But with a few simple optimization tactics, you can start to make meaningful connections in a community that feels right for you.
The idea of “community” is broad, and the term can cover a lot of different things. A community might be built around a specific place or locality (such as a neighborhood or base), or it could be a group of people connected by certain demographics, religion, mutual interests, passion for a cause, or similar values and views. A community can also come out of membership to a formal organization—such as the military. In general, though, formal organizations sponsor activities for people to connect and engage. But whatever might bring a group of people together, it’s a certain level of interconnectedness and emotional ties that turn a group of individuals into one community.
In a similar vein, there are a lot of different ways to think about what community engagement really means. Consider some of these different aspects of engagement to get your wheels turning on what communities you might already belong to.
- Contribution. What do you actually do and what types of activities do you participate in? Do you attend or plan community events (such as neighborhood block parties, political rallies, or pick-up basketball every Thursday)? Civic engagement—or the activities you do with others to support the general public good (for instance, volunteering or even voting)—is another common way you might take action within your community.
- Connection. How easily are you able to build relationships with others in your community? Do you feel like you identify with certain groups or organizations, or not so much? For example, if you attend a family readiness group meeting or event, do you connect with the other people there? A significant aspect of social connection is the feeling of belonging. A connection with others that allows you to build personal relationships (especially those that extend outside of group activities) is an important aspect of community integration.
- Collective action. How does your community collectively make things better for the whole? Strong communities feel a sense of shared responsibility to each other—from addressing an issue to meeting a goal. And the act of coming together somehow helps the members do so. Think of times where you have come together with others specifically to make change or support others.
There are so many ways to get involved within your community, including military and civilian organizations, groups inside and outside of military installations, family readiness groups, cooperative extensions, schools, and youth service organizations.
Community ties to health, well-being, and military performance
For Military Service Members and their families, more community involvement is linked with better health, higher quality of life, and overall well-being. Civic engagement is also linked to better cardiovascular health, lower mortality, and even fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. And all of these health benefits impact your ability to perform as a Military Service Member. Though it’s not entirely clear why this link exists, there are a few different possibilities.
- Awareness of resources. Simply put, the more involved you are with your community, the more you know what support resources are out there for you to access. This is especially true when thinking about the military community: Those individuals and families who feel a sense of belonging with other Military Service Members and military families tend to be more aware of the programs and services to help navigate the challenges of military life. Even outside of the military, connecting to different organizations and groups also exposes you to more information, knowledge, and resources to support your health and well-being.
- Sense of purpose. Participating in a community or group that you care about (or whose cause you care about) can be personally fulfilling. To work on a project or hobby, or advocate for something you care about with others can also help give you a sense of meaning—and can feel empowering. All of these things contribute to your mental and emotional well-being.
- Social pressure and stigma. Another reason why getting out there and socializing with your community benefits your health might be because of a desire to fit in or do what seems to be “right” when others are looking. Even if you’re not consciously aware of it, the more connections you have, the more eyes are on you, which impacts your choices. The link between health and community participation might also go the other way too—people who are ill, injured, or feel unhealthy might feel stigmatized and choose to remain more isolated.
- Big picture change. When groups of people organize, particularly to volunteer or advocate for change, then the public as a whole tends to benefit. As people get involved, a positive feedback loop starts and community health tends to improve—either because more people are contributing, or because new programs are developed, for example.
- Social support. Community engagement gives you a chance to build personal relationships with others, which helps you build your network of social support. One-on-one relationships are critical to your social fitness and well-being, and participating with groups of people you can identify with and feel you relate to help you make those connections. A strong social support network also serves an important role in supporting families when Military Service Members are on duty, TDY, or deployed.
Ways to build community engagement
The bottom line is that community engagement is a key factor in social fitness, health, and optimal performance for Military Service Members. Community support also helps families navigate through the many transitions and challenges of military life, which increases retention. And while being a part of the military might mean you’re already connected to a community, for many it can still be difficult to stay involved and actually participate in the military network. For example, Reserve members and families, or active-duty members and families who move from one duty station or base to the next might face those types of challenges. Consider some of these strategies to increase community engagement and start reaping the benefits.
- Start early. Support the future of the force by getting your kids involved in community activities at an early age. Children and teens who participate in community organizations are more likely to continue to do so as adults. Getting involved in youth groups or volunteer activities can also start teaching your kids how to work collaboratively with others and gain exposure to lots of different people.
- Just do it! Even if you’re not feeling super gung ho about heading to an FRG meeting, getting to know your neighbors, or joining a new religious community, try just going through the motions anyway. Participation alone can build your sense of community even if you’re not all in. Simply being in contact with and close range to others will lead to more interactions and likely grow feelings of connectedness.
- Look for impact. Another strategy is to look for quality over quantity and think about how you get the most out of your involvement. People tend to feel more committed and connected to communities when they have a chance to influence outcomes, or when they invest something of themselves. Consider what you’re most passionate about, your interests, or even what types of communities are close by. Then, think about which organizations give you a chance to invest something of yourself, such as your time or expertise. Look for opportunities where you’ll be able to actually make change too.
- Leverage technology. Not all communities start or end in brick-and-mortar settings. It’s certainly possible to connect with others at a distance. Use the Internet or social media to learn more about what types of community activities are available to you either at your location or installation, or what options might exist based on your interests. You might even find online communities that keep in touch almost all virtually.