Compassion, Wellbeing

Last August I had the privilege to visit the Welcome Fair at the University of Helsinki to welcome new international students also to Nyyti’s services. At the fair, we carried out a small survey about worries and service needs of international students when it comes to their mental wellbeing. Two of the three most common worries connected with the respondents’ stay in Finland were loneliness and cultural differences that make it difficult to connect to people.

Coming to a whole new country and culture is a shock and building social relationships in that context requires a lot of the individual. However, also Finnish people, including students, suffer from loneliness. If you are interested in learning more about how to join in and even how to make Finnish social culture more open, have a read!

How to raise a sense of community?

On the last day of October, several experts on loneliness and different forms of communities were brought together to discuss the importance of a sense of community for the wellbeing of the individual. The discussion identified several factors that are crucial for a sense of community to emerge. A fair and safe atmosphere, a feeling of trust and a certain laidbackness seem to be central ingredients. Also, the fact that the community is open to new members is an important factor.

Why do we need communities?

You might think that we in our developed society and with a welfare state in the background, would make do well all on our own. However, without a sense of community, we lack a fundamental basis for our doing and being. This goes for individuals as well as for society in general. As Niina Junttila, educational councillor at the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI), said in the discussion:

If we let the young and students be left aside and excluded, our society runs out of people who can continue to build and uphold it. We need to see the uttermost importance and power of a sense of community.

There is a lot of research on the human brain, which shows the enormous negative impact on both mental and physical health of a person, who feels left aside and excluded. Community, autonomy and ability are the basic needs of human psychology. Loneliness debilitates or destroys them all.

Piia Aho, project coordinator at the Martha Organization, pointed at the observation that if one cannot fulfil one’s need for a sense of community in a positive way, one may feel tempted to seek attention in ways that have negative consequences for both the individual and the community. One example is violent behaviour.

How does a sense of community serve the wellbeing of the individual?

In a good community there are clear rules, it’s nice to be there and there is no need to be afraid of anything. Doing something together makes it easier to connect to others than if you just tried to get to know someone without doing anything else at the same time. In a hobby group, it is also possible to feel equal no matter who you are, Aho pointed out. Eeva Lehtineva, community deacon at Vantaa’s Shared Table, which increases the wellbeing of people in need by developing the food aid system, stated that a very important impact of the Shared Table has been the experience of a sense of community.

On the other hand, the implications of a lack of a sense of community are harsh. Anxiety, depression, study burnout, exclusion and an early death are all more common among people who feel lonely. Junttila revealed that young people who feel lonely, use eight times more medication for somatic pain than their peers who do not report loneliness. According to her, we have still not understood the whole scope of effects of loneliness and social exclusion.

How to join in?

Aho reminded us that even if you are an adult with a steady grip of working life, you might find it difficult to tell someone you don’t know from before about yourself. The key to joining in is to look for a social group that does something you are interested in and join them in the doing.

According to Junttila, 80-90 per cent of Finnish people don’t report feeling lonely, so presumably they have the skills it takes to build social relationships. She argued that we need to start using this potential to open possibilities also for the rest the population. For this purpose, Junttila has started a movement called Lähde (‘Come, join’). It aims at inspiring all of us to more often call a friend or a relative, to smile to strangers, to greet a neighbour and to talk to people on the tram, just to name a few examples. These small acts may sound softy, but they boost our oxytocin and serotonin levels and enhance our feeling of security, belonging and trust. In short, they make us feel good no matter if we felt lonely or not to begin with.

The NGO HelsinkiMissio has a project called Näkemys, which has recently published a workbook in Finnish for people who feel lonely and want to change their situation. The most important thing is the courage to join in. It may require several tries, but someone will sooner or later see you and help you to join in, Junttila assured. Aho added that different online chat services may be an easy first step if one wants to discuss different ways of joining in or where to find a suitable community.

What can everyone of us do to enhance the sense of community?

The experts all agreed that everyone should be curious and interested in people around them. With a friendly and open attitude, you can never go wrong, Lehtineva confirmed.

Why not try a new approach to people around you on November 10? That is when Lähde organises its next theme day for reaching out to close ones and strangers. Share your experiences on doing so with the hashtag #lähdeliike and help spread the good vibes around you. Who knows, with your own small contribution, you may steer Finnish culture in a more social direction!

This blog text is based on a NyytiTalk that was streamed on 31st October 2019 on Nyyti’s YouTube channel. The discussion was led by Henna Sihvonen, project coordinator for Nyyti’s project   Yhdessä yhteisöksi (‘Building community together’).
Here you can access the recording in Finnish.