Community is the heart of university. Students mix with other similarly aged people in an environment ripe with social activity, friendship, ideation, and discussion. It's the most powerful element of college or graduate school — and also the most jarring to leave behind.
Social isolation often follows graduation. I know firsthand. After college, I moved to Washington, D.C., and ended up living in the suburbs near work for a year, struggling to connect with others in a new city where few friends lived nearby. And after graduate school, I moved to Atlanta, but had to commute for one year back and forth to Boston where my wife was finishing grad school — a schedule that made it nearly impossible to get involved with friends or organizations in the city I called home. During those times, I found myself unfulfilled, lonely, and restless — struggling to rediscover the community and connection I'd taken for granted the year before.
My experience is reasonably typical. The New York Times recently lamented the difficulties in making new friends as a person enters their 30s (the age at which many are leaving graduate school), largely because the three essential ingredients to forging friendship are lacking or harder to find post-university — "proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other." And this is exacerbated when young professionals take jobs that find them on the road three to four days per week. I've heard this time and again from my friends who are working hard but finding it difficult to forge new friendships or romantic partnerships, connect with old friends or the families they have, and give back to the communities in which they live.
This is tragic because community is so important — perhaps even more important than career. Numerous studies have shown the link between health and community or friendship — prolonging life, promoting brain health, and even influencing your weight. One study even found that only smoking is as deleterious to men's heart health as lack of social support. Research has also shown that friendship and community are key elements to happiness. And the importance of these friendships only increases with age. Family relationships are similarly important. Researchers have found a much stronger relationship between happiness and family relationships over time than between happiness and income; and 75 percent of adults consider their families to be the most important and satisfying element of their lives. Voluteering and community service also lead to happier individuals and communities alike. But all of these — family, friendship, community service — are connected to our ability to limit our working schedules and firmly plant ourselves in a place for a period of time.
So why do so many of us so consistently deprioritize these things after graduation? We simply fail to focus on it. Career success is visible and easy to define. We can measure it in raises and promotions. And it has urgency because it's what allows us to pay our bills. Community, meanwhile, is something soft and seemingly without urgency — we tell ourselves there will always be time for friendship, family, and community service just after we've mounted the next hill of career success. But this skewed prioritization — done with the best of intentions — can lead us to sadly kick important relationships, civic service, and our own happiness and well-being further and further down the road.
Author Bronnie Ware spent many years as a nurse caring for others in the last few weeks of their lives. Based on that experience, she wrote a now famous essay (and book) on her dying patients' top five regrets. All are worth a read, but two relate directly to community. Bronnie's dying patients claimed, "I wish I hadn't worked so hard" — expressing a longing to have spent more time with their spouses and children. And they coupled that with the desire to have "stayed in touch with my friends." Their sentiments were summed up perhaps even more concisely in the conclusions of a study started in 1938 which followed 267 Harvard graduates, many of whom were ambitious and professionally successful (including future president John F. Kennedy), for seventy years after college. The primary conclusion of that study? "Happiness is love. Full stop." Career is important. But community conquers all.
So, for all the new graduates out there, I won't spend time reciting the ways in which to make community — through romantic partnerships, involvement in religious or civic organizations, dedication to existing friends or carving out time to make new ones. At some level, we social human beings all know how to do those things. I'll simply offer this advice: Remember that the most powerful part of your educational experience was social. And use that knowledge to build a life after graduation that's happy, balanced, and fulfilled.