Social Wellbeing Challenge, Round 2: Mutuality

I have long romanticized living in a commune where people help each other freely, all for the good of the group. After living in an intentional community in Thailand for a year, I now know that communal life is not all sunshine and daisies. Nevertheless, I’m still drawn to the ideal of mutual support that improves lives, strengthens bonds, and elevates the common good. This is the lesson I learned at Srisa Asoke and wrote about last year (Networked, Part 2: Strive for Mutuality in Communal Relationships). Mutuality takes on even more import when I think of all the people who are grappling with more serious life challenges than I am and could use more support. So if you too would like to nudge your social network into being more mutually supportive and expand that support to others in need, try these ten actions on for size.

1. Be the first to give

Reciprocity has to start somewhere, so why not be the first to give? No gift is too small: a holiday card, the proverbial cup of sugar, overflow from the garden or baking…. My favorite offering is mutually beneficial: hand-me-downs. With only one child and a very small house, we need to pass things on. Outgrown toys (like a big box of plastic dinosaurs) find new homes with neighborhood kids, clothes go to a friend’s daughter who is one year younger, and books join the little lending “library” at the end of our street. Sharing stuff in this way is so easy, perhaps because it makes life easier for all involved.

The tricky part is that people are often reticent to ask for help. But don’t let that stop you. I have found that it’s much easier to build mutual support if I take the initiative to figure out what others need and offer it. Our neighborhood is the most obvious place to start. Several older neighbors are starting to slow down, and they never say no to yard work. My daughter actually enjoys this: she finds satisfaction in weeding, she likes to chat with adults, and she often comes home with a little something, like a succulent cutting or a pretty rock. But there are so many smaller acts that take no time, like putting away trash bins after they’ve been emptied, collecting the mail, or carrying in the groceries. The trick is to be out an about, talking to neighbors and paying attention. The result is a neighborhood where people care for each other. 

Note that these are not “random acts of kindness” but purposeful ones that aim to lay the groundwork for a circle of support. In the process of giving, I get good feelings, a lesson for my daughter, and perhaps a little less awkwardness when I inevitably need help myself.

2. Sign up for support

When our daughter was born, we lived far away from family who could lighten the new-baby workload. Luckily, we could turn to the Laguna Beach Parents Club for support. They ran a range of programs like age-based play groups and lectures, but the real lifesaver was a meal-delivery system, in which existing members signed up to bring dinner to new parents. In our sleep-deprived state, we were so thankful for those homemade meals, complete with a bottle of wine and a thoughtful note of congratulations. Besides the relief of not having to cook, we felt truly cared for. So of course when we got into the groove with our own baby, we signed up to return the favor. Bonus: It gave us a happy rush to help others feel as good as we did on the receiving end. 

In the subsequent years, we discovered another organization whose sole purpose is to organize meal giving around significant life events: Meal Train. Significant life events might include the arrival of a new baby (as we experienced), injuries or surgeries, military deployment, extended illnesses, condolences, as well as group events. It’s beautifully simple: typically a friend or family member sets up the meal train, specifying food preferences/allergies and delivery dates/times and location and then emails an invite to anyone who might want to participate. To sign up to give a meal, just create a free account, enter your name in an available slot, and indicate what you’ll be bringing (e.g., “salmon and rice” or “pulled pork sandwiches”). You’ll also be able to see what other people are bringing so you can avoid duplicating a dish. My family has participated in two Meal Trains—one after a surgery and one, a death—and determined that it’s a brilliant way to show you care without intruding.

3. Express gratitude

Gratitude is a hot topic in the happiness literature these days. Numerous studies, like the one by psychologists Joel Wong and Joshua Brown at Indiana University, indicate that writing gratitude letters boosts wellbeing for both healthy, well-adjusted individuals and those struggling with mental health concerns. Wong and Brown took a step further to understand howgratitude works to change our mental disposition: the gratitude letters examined in the study employed fewer negative emotion words (and more positive ones) as well as more “we” words (first- person plural) as compared to the control group’s journal entries exploring negative experiences. Thus writing gratitude letters “unshackles us from toxic emotions.” Surprisingly (or not), these researchers say that gratitude helps even if it’s not shared—only 23% of their research participants sent their gratitude letters but still felt the benefits. 

Nevertheless, I would suggest that by not sharing their gratitude, the letter writers short themselves in the experiencing the full benefits, benefits that come from strengthening social bonds. There’s a reason for the truism “Everyone likes to be appreciated.” It’s hard to maintain the motivation to give when you don’t feel appreciated – even to one’s own children (of course we keep giving in that case because it’s our job, but it’s certainly one of the top ten complaints parents make!). So it’s possible that those who do not express gratitude risk losing their support. In terms of our own wellbeing, positive psychology founder Martin Seligman’s exercise of hand deliveringa gratitude letter results in the biggest boost in happiness scores, with the benefits lasting for a whole month. So by all means, write out your thanks, but be sure to share it.

4. Question commercial sharing

It seems like social support naturally declines due to characteristics of our modern way of life that distance us from others; yet like so many social problems, there is often a market-based solution. Enter the “sharing economy,” which originated to facilitate sharing resources among individuals, particularly those who lack a ready social network to share with. True, the goods and services offered on commercial sharing platforms like AirBnB come at a price, but ideally it is more affordable—and more personal—than a straightforward market exchange. 

Besides house sharing, two other growing niches are car sharing and skill sharing. Forget Uber (which is really just a taxi service); a better example is Getaround, which allows individuals to rent cars from private owners on an hourly or daily basis, more conveniently and often less expensively than going through a car rental agency. Then there is Task Rabbit, which started with assembling Ikea furniture, but quickly expanded to other tasks around the house. 

What’s so clever about these peer-to-peer industries is that they’ve had to manufacture mechanisms for trust that are necessary for something as intimate and risky as inviting strangers into your home or lending them your car—trust that would ordinarily exist in established social relationships. In these new sharing industries, ratings become king. Ratings and comments allow others to make decisions based on the collection of real experiences, and negative feedback would inhibit wrongdoers from doing business in that marketplace. 

Sharing economy innovations like these provide a platform for practical support while promoting positive social relationships in surprising ways. Yet part of me questions, is this really sharing? Or is it just a slightly more social “business-as-usual”? Critics say that these companies do no more than bring underutilized assets into the market.

In fact, Neal Gorenflo of Shareable distinguishes between transactional and transformational sharing. Postgrowth explains that transactional sharing is driven by profits as well as resource efficiency and cost sharing. Transformational sharing adds the critical element of a power shift: “who owns and controls the processes by which sharing occurs, who benefits, and whether it is strengthening the commons or resulting in the commodification of our lives.” Truly transformational sharing systematically strengthens social relationships and community resiliency through sharing. And that is something I’d truly like to see.

5. Refine the art of asking

When I saw Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk on the Art of Asking, I was moved. The musician talked about her college “job” as a street performer: an all-white living statue she called the 8-foot Bride who offered a flower and intense eye contact to anyone who would accept it—her ask and thanks for spare change in a hat.  She admits she was sometimes heckled and often ignored, but she cherished the encounters with strangers that created a real connection. 

As her band, the Dresden Dolls, started to take off, Palmer wanted to recreate the connection that occurs at the intersection of giving and receiving. So she continued to ask for anything the band needed was continuously blessed by the generosity of others. Palmer explains, “Through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you.” When Palmer decided to leave her record label and asked her fans to fund her next album via Kickstarter, she received not the $100,000 she asked for, but a whopping 1.2 million. Just like crowdsurfing, Palmer fell into her crowd and trusted that they would catch her.

Palmer maintains that we should not hesitate to ask because providing an opportunity to help is a gift to others. This is not unlike the argument made by nonprofit fundraisers—don’t be afraid to ask for donations because people want to give! Unfortunately, this attitude is perhaps a bit naïve. In an NPR review of Palmer’s book The Art of AskingAnalisa Quinn observes: 

In our society, certain kinds of people are allowed to ask for things, and certain kinds of people are not. [Palmer] writes as though the biggest obstacle to getting the help you need is a reluctance to ask — not, say, ingrained social structures having to do with race and class. Who is allowed to ask for help? Who is heard when they ask for help? Whom do people want to help? 

We would do well to keep in mind Quinn’s point about the privilege of asking and, by extension, how an individual’s dignity might get dinged by having to ask. Perhaps finding that balance is the real Art of Asking. 

6. Contribute to the commons

Shepherds in the Lake District of Great Britain benefit from ancient rights to graze their sheep on communally owned land, a relic from the feudal system. But with those “commoner” rights come responsibilities to give time and talents so that all the sheep prosper from one year to the next.  One old timer can read the signs that indicate the right moment to bring the sheep down from the fells to shear—the group waits for his call to say: “tomorrow is the day: meet at the gate at 5 am.” Another is the best dog handler and a third is fastest with the sorting gates, ensuring that all the sheep return to their rightful owners. In this way, the commons is not just shared land; it’s a shared good life. 

Every community has a commons. We may not depend on it for our livelihoods like the Lake District shepherds, but the quality of a community’s commons does affect its quality of life. Take my own town of Laguna Beach, for example. The most obvious tangible shared resource is the ocean: we all use it freely, and if we don’t do our part to maintain it, we won’t be able to enjoy it as we do now. “Doing our part” means picking up trash along the beach, minimizing pollutants that end up in storm drains and contaminate the water, and—for more skilled contributions—monitoring the ocean for conditions that are unsafe for both human and marine life.

And just like the Lake District shepherds, we must fortify our commons against external stressors like tourism and climate change. “Doing our part” might then require more concerted effort, like joining the City Council Environmental Sustainability Committee (like I did) to advocate for stricter regulations on plastic waste, toxic chemical usage/disposal, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors that affect long-term sustainability.

For any community, think about what makes that community special, and there you’ll find the commons as well as the motivation needed to support it.

7. Support community co-ops

When I lived in Minneapolis, I did my grocery shopping at the Rainbow Food Co-op, where I found the most affordable organic options, and then packed my own purchases in their left-over delivery boxes (long before plastic bags were banned). Food co-ops are formed, owned, and operated by community members who want access to healthy, yummy food with reduced environmental impact and less waste. Extending the benefits outward, food co-ops benefit the wider community by providing a market for local farmers and producers and by partnering with local food pantries and nonprofit organizations, thereby helping to create a fairer food system. 

In the US, there are 42,000 cooperative businesses ranging in size from small local buying clubs to Fortune 500 companies, with a combined worth of nearly $3 trillion. If you buy Land O’ Lakes butter or shop at ACE Hardware, you are patronizing a co-op. The advantages of cooperative businesses for the owners include a smaller investment burden, ability to make large purchases as a group, collective bargaining power, and pooled risk. In these ways, co-ops build strong social support networks for their members. 

But it’s not necessary to formally incorporate and obtain a business license to reap similar collective benefits. You just need a group of people with a common goal and the will to make it happen. For example, if you’d like to grow squash but don’t have the land to do it, simply form a community cooperative like the folks in Totnes, UK did, with the risks and gains shared equally among all members. They’d work together on weekends on the many tasks involved, like propagating seeds in a greenhouse, gathering manure from equestrian centers, watering, and composting dead vines after harvest (always with tea and cake, because it is England, after all). Each member would then be “paid” a share of the squashes based on the number of hours worked, finally celebrating with a post-harvest potluck. The Totnes group has published step-by-step instructions for running a community squash co-opfor anyone wishing to set up their own. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring example of community-based support.

8. Donate to disaster relief

Disasters often bring out the best of community support. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 swept away entire villages in Khao Lak, Thailand: houses, fishing boats, family businesses, shrimp farms, livestock, vegetable gardens, and people. Those who survived faced the seemingly insurmountable work of rebuilding their lives, but they didn’t have to do it alone. Volunteers from across Thailand and across the globe poured in to help the communities of Khao Lak, first to identify bodies, recover possessions, and clear rubble, then to construct new homes, schools, and livelihoods. The following summer, I went to lend a hand with the Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC), a Thai-led nonprofit that played a crucial role in coordinating international volunteer efforts in Khao Lak.

 The volunteers who worked through TVC did much to restore normalcy in the region—those affected where able to move from dismal temporary shelters to newly built homes at a greatly accelerated pace and received alternative vocational training to support themselves until the fishing industry could be restored. I must note that potential for negative impact exists when volunteers are under-qualified or culturally insensitive, when the sponsoring organization lacks the capacity to manage them, and when the communities have inadequate control, all of which I observed in Khao Lak. But on the balance, the outpouring of community support was literally life-changing.

It may not be logistically feasible to volunteer in situafter a disaster—either because you can’t get there yourself, or because the affected locality can’t accommodate such an influx of people, well meaning though they may be. In that case, donate money, whatever you can comfortably afford. I donate through Global Giving, which works with a vetted network of local nonprofit organizations around the world, providing them with the funding, tools, and training they need to be effective. When disaster strikes, Global Giving quickly connects with partners in the region and sets up a global campaign to funnel resources where they’re needed most. Donating money for disaster relief in this way is undoubtedly the most good we can do.

9. Consider microcredit

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, one of my favorite projects was assisting women’s groups in setting up Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) and micro-enterprises. ROSCAs are voluntary alternative banking cooperatives that are purposely informal and local, and they are often dominated by women who lack access to credit in developing countries as a way to provide self-help to each other. Microcredit is an effective poverty alleviation strategy employed by international development agencies—without credit, people living a subsistence lifestyle often lack capital to buy seeds or other agricultural inputs or to launch businesses that would give more income and thus more financial security. The most well known purveyor of microcredit is the Grameen Bank, founded in Bangladesh by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunnis. 

At the time I was working in Thailand, the Thai government prohibited microfinance organizations from setting up shop, reasoning that the government already provided monies to village funds. But like elsewhere in the developing world, women and had difficulty accessing these funds.  Organizing ROSCAs allowed women access to not only capital but also training, which was similarly unavailable to them as women. Side note: as an American feminist, I railed against the social exclusion Thai women experienced. There were so many female heads of household in the area due to male labor migration, yet they were not invited to the agricultural trainings they needed to run their farms. Amazingly, the Thai women I knew stayed positive, pulled together, and found creative ways to negotiate their structural constraints. 

The important point here is how vital social networks are to effective microcredit. For ROSCAs, members pool their money into a common fund and each take a turn withdrawing a lump sum. In order for this to operate fairly, everyone must contribute to the fund and repay loans according to rules stipulated by the group. Research on microcredit worldwide indicates a much lower default rate on loan repayment than for traditional bank loans largely due to the social consequences of defaulting to ones peers. To see microcredit in action, check out Kiva, which crowdfunds loans to unlock capital for 1.7 billion people in underserved communities with the aim of building a financially inclusive world.

10. Invest in girls’ education 

As of last year, UNESCO estimates that 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are not in school, 15 million of whom will likely never enter a classroom. This is a travesty not only for the girls themselves, but for their communities and the world. Development experts categorically agree that supporting girls’ education results in the highest return on investments. According to the World Bank, every year of secondary school results in an 18 percent increase in a girl’s earning potential; thus, increasing women’s participation in the labor market (now nearly 27 percent lower than men) could add billions to the global economy. Research also shows that better-educated girls and women tend to be healthier, marry later, have fewer children, and provide better care for them.    

 What’s most relevant to this discussion on social support is how women reinvest what they gain in their families and communities. The World Economic Forum reports that women typically reinvest a whopping 90 percent of their income on basic needs like food, healthcare, and schooling for themselves and their children. But if we extend beyond formal economic frameworks, we’ll see that women contribute so much more. 

What’s most relevant to this discussion on social support is how women reinvest what they gain in their families and communities. The World Economic Forum reports that women typically reinvest a whopping 90 percent of their income on basic needs like food, healthcare, and schooling for themselves and their children. But if we extend beyond formal economic frameworks, we’ll see that women contribute so much more. 

A brilliant example is Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement (GBM). GBM formed in 1977 to help rural Kenyan women who were feeling the effects of environmental degradation: dried up streams and increasingly scarce food, firewood, and fodder. As a fix, GBM “encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work.” That provided a short-term solution to their subsistence problem.

For the long term, GBM conducted seminars in civic and environmental education, encouraging participants to understand how they were “sabotaging their lives by not working for the common good” and empowering them to fight collectively against land owners, big businesses, and political leaders who did not have their best interests at heart. Thanks to the education GBM provided, what started as women’s support network to increase food security grew into a global movement for social and environmental justice. This is definitely something worth investing in.

Wrap up…

Our social relationships are absolutely vital to our wellbeing. We can boost our wellbeing by simply interacting with people, especially those who generate positive emotion and influence. On a deeper level we’re aiming to shake the loneliness and isolation that sometimes accompanies modern life and find a sense of belonging to a community. Relationships become trickier, however, when we try to figure how best to support each other.  But it’s worth the effort: social support is beneficial for both the giver and receiver as well as the larger community in more ways than we can count. 

Our goal state for our social relationships is mutuality, that sense of shared respect and responsibility. The interesting quality of mutuality is that as one person’s feeling is reflected in another, the division between them is blurred and interdependence becomes more pronounced. Just think of how strong our networks would be if we could all say with conviction, “the feeling is mutual.”

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