How living with others reclaims your time and freedom
The subconscious message of the American ethos is that sharing is important for children, but adults are not truly mature until they can provide for themselves so well that they never need to share.
Independence is considered more valuable than fellowship, self-sufficiency over generosity. This has brought us great material comfort, but left a gap in our human nature that longs for meaning in a culture of reciprocity and belonging.
Communal living is becoming more popular in America, catching up to the European trend (which is mimicking the tribes people have lived in for millennia). Why are more people choosing to forego what we’ve been taught is the ultimate in personal freedom and social status- a single family home?
1. Natural & Wholesome
Living in a community is a natural human behavior, ensuring that more of our waking hours are spent on activities which are in alignment with our values and increasing our free time.
The mental stress alleviated by sharing time and resources is nothing new. Anthropologists hypothesize that humans have lived in group sizes ranging from 50–150 members through our 200,000 year history. Safety and the energy savings brought by the division of labor possible in groups led to increased quantity and quality of life.
While we currently are more stressed, obese, and cardiovascularly weak than our ancestors (completely due to lifestyle choices), our modern lifestyle has changed our lives in some beautiful ways, too.
The average American now lives to be 79 years old, nearly double the 35 year expectancy that was common to anatomically modern homo sapiens 20,000 years ago. Famine is ever declining, the percentage of the world’s population experiencing hunger the lowest in history and falling even as the world population booms. The internet facilitates world-wide communication, so families and friends can travel with ease and keep connected to those close to them. These advances are unprecedented and amazing.
The point of citing ‘human nature’ should be not to remain ignorant of the conveniences of modern life, but to discern useful characteristics of our hardwired biology that may help us live healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives.
One such effect has been studied much lately — the effects of loneliness.
“Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.”- Carl Jung
The Loneliness Epidemic is “more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day” according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, and affecting 40% of Americans. In particular this affects seniors, 28% of whom live alone.
Even a couple generations ago, the cultural norm was multi-generational housing (as it still is in much of the world). The wealth of industrialization led to the rise of the middle class after WWII, and construction/housing entrepreneurs (along with the US government) incentivised those new upwardly-mobile Americans to buy single family homes. This is a gross simplification, but the point is that the currently perceived norm, single-family housing, is a very recent invention by historical standards.
There is much to recommend this kind of individual freedom. But, is isolated living in a single-family home the choice that will lead to your greatest happiness and health? And did you even choose it, or is it the default cultural norm?
For millennia our ancestors lived in close-knit social groups through all stages of life, took their behavioral cues from natural cycles, and worked physically which keeps our bodies functioning well.
Which of these natural patterns are helpful to our modern happiness? Each of us gets to choose.
2. Purposeful & Integrated
Flow also talks much about how work is related to human happiness and flourishing. The basic problem of human psychology/biology is: that we are programmed to want rest/relaxation, but in actuality we derive meaning and happiness from work.
A commune is a contract between the members: we all pledge to care about the same thing(s). Unifying themes, beliefs, and values are written into the contract, and the contract informs tasks, norms, and rules in the community.
You may already belong to a church, exercise class, or artistic group. The values of these organizations are defined before you join and your membership is contingent upon your actions adhering to those values.
It is much easier to live in congress with your values by hacking our brains via two psychological phenomena.
The first is the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” desire, which dictates that whatever people in your immediate social circle have, you will grow to want, too.
A 2001 study examined participants’ motivations to switch to renewable (solar) energy from conventional (oil & gas) methods.
While the participants knew that the switch would help the environment AND save them money, the biggest factor determining their switch to solar panels was whether or not their neighbors had- the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect. We want to subscribe to the social norm (aka adhere to the norms of our social group).
The feeling of reciprocity is the second hack we can give ourselves to live in alignment with our goals. If we see other community members doing things that benefit us (gardening, cleaning, etc.) we will naturally want to reciprocate. It’s a cool thing about being a social species- we can use our natural tendencies toward socialization to motivate our own actions.
The only way to keep values at the top of our mind is by constant reminders. These reminders are built into every aspect of communal life, should you choose to explore it. A commune is the opportunity to build your entire lifestyle around your values by tapping into your socio-psychological hardwiring.
3. Freedom (of Time, Money, and Thought)
Communal living frees you psychologically from indecision and self doubt about the coherence of your lifestyle with your values. Practically, it also frees up your time and other material resources. Here are three examples:
EX 1. Communal meals
Let’s say that the community decides to eat 3 dinners a week together. There are 9 cooking-age adults in the community, and each meal shift requires 3 people (a chef, a sou, and a helper). This means that for every meal that you help prepare (1x/wk), you receive 2 other communal meals with zero strings attached.
Don’t feel like socializing one night? Meals are optional, but there will be leftovers for you should you want them.
Scheduling issue? You have 6 other adults who could sub in for you so you and any family still gets fed.
EX 2. Tool sharing
As single family home owners we spend much time and attention picking out necessary tools for domestic life- washer, dryer, lawn mower, refrigerator, car. These are larger purchases, large tools, that get used frequently or not so frequently.
Think about the amount of space in your home taken up by tools vs. the amount of time you actually use them. A fridge has a large square footage print, but this is justified by your use of it multiple times every day.
But let’s think about the square footage (in your physical environment and psyche) taken up by other large appliances: how often do you really mow the lawn (in Ohio, for optimistically 6 months out of the year)? How about the tabletop miter saw in your basement?
Cars are a tool so symbolic of freedom to Americans we rarely think of them as what they are — a transportation machine. A very expensive, very large machine that we have been taught to incorporate into our housing schemes (garages, driveways). An average American car spends 95% of its time parked instead of fulfilling its purpose: conveying people from point A to point B.
Single-family homes purchasing such large tools — each family incurring the upfront cost, physical footprint, and ongoing maintenance costs of the multiple big-ticket items it takes to furnish a modern home — is the norm. There’s no reason it has to or even should be.
When we share large domestic tools, community members gain space in their homes, save cash in their wallets, and can access specialized tools they might not have had otherwise (due to financial or storage constraints).
EX 3. Childcare/Division of Labor
Children are magical. Children are also the biggest, time-suckiest, most all-encompassing project that any human can take on.
It’s a daunting task for one or even two parents to constantly meet the stimulation of mind, body, and emotions that any child needs.
We know that, to truly do it right, “it takes a village”. So why don’t we practice living in community where others can help?
Imagine that you have a child, and so do 3 other people in the community. Let’s say 2 adults are sufficient to watch 4 children, and the kids need to be looked after during the daytime when others are at work on the community farm or at their nine-to-fives.
Any single parent’s need to attend to their child every day is mitigated — they get a built in break 2 days a week. The 2 days where they are attending to 4 children they have support from another adult. The parent’s off days are free to use how they wish — to rest, engage in personal projects, or participate in community tasks like farming, contributing to their vital sense of identity outside the role of parent.
For the children, this arrangement incorporates natural learning of social skills, leaves the option for 1-on-1 attention, and models successful adulthood to them of different types than their primary parents. The larger a child’s social network, the more secure they can become.
According to a study in the book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, this is the how the average American spends their 117 weekly waking hours:
- 30 hours- work
- 10 hours- “work”- chatting, daydreaming
- 20 hours- leisure, including exercise, reading, and TV
- 7 hours- social
- 50 hours- maintenance
FIFTY HOURS, almost half of our waking time, is spent on maintaining our life. Cooking, cleaning, travelling from work or social obligations, chores, repairs, and a countless list of tiny tasks that unconsciously eat our time.
Our current Western culture has sold us on the idea of the single family home, which may be the most inefficient, isolating, and unnatural way for humans to live.
The point is, did you freely choose your lifestyle? If so, great! But single-family/private homes are the only model of life we’re commonly shown. They are not guaranteed to be the most natural, free, and purposeful lifestyle. Communal living is one other way.