Science Says Life is Better in Intentional Communities

(AP Photo/Missourian, Joshua A. Bickel)

Intentional communities geared to gender parity, equal division of labor, and a simpler way of life are proliferating in the United States. Rejecting consumerism and capitalism, communities tend their own livestock, gardens, and facilities, and share among themselves. And, according to researchers, members of intentional communities score highly on the Satisfaction with Life Scale — higher in fact than 30 of 31 different cohorts under study. Why? As Mike Mariani reports at The New York Times Style Magazine, intentional community members have strong social connections and a meaningful existence spent in nature, not to mention a much smaller carbon footprint than average people.

The members of East Wind, for example, range in age from infancy to 76: Some have lived here for more than three decades, but around half of the population is part of a new wave, people in their late 20s and early 30s who joined in the last four years. These newer residents moved to East Wind to wean themselves off fossil fuels, grow their own food, have a greater say in how their society is run and live in less precarious financial circumstances.

Even in the dead of winter, the property is stunning, with its undulating textures of ridges, glades and limestone escarpments. It was obvious how living here could reconnect people to the land, letting them hike, climb, swim and harvest in a way that is beyond reach for most Americans. As we passed a three-story dormitory painted Egyptian blue, Nichols told me that, as a college student in the late 2000s, he tumbled down what he calls the “climate change research hole,” reading websites that pored over grim scientific projections about an increasingly warmer planet. He’d joined the Bloomington, Indiana, chapter of the Occupy movement for a while, but saw the blaze of indignation dwindle to fumes without any lasting political victories. Afterward, Nichols felt wholly disillusioned by the corporations and government organizations that he felt had a stranglehold on his life. “It’s going to go how it goes,” he recalled thinking, so “how do you want to live in it?” After discovering several intentional communities online — many find East Wind and others through simple Google searches — he concluded that joining one was “just a more comfortable way of living right now.”

IN 2017 BJORN GRINDE and Ranghild Bang Nes, researchers with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, co-authored a paper on the quality of life among North Americans living in intentional communities. Along with David Sloan Wilson, director of the evolutionary studies program at Binghamton University, and Ian MacDonald, a graduate assistant, they contacted more than 1,000 people living in 174 communities across the U.S. and Canada and asked them to rate their happiness level on the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS), a globally recognized measurement tool. They compared these results to a widely cited 2008 study by the psychologists William Pavot and Ed Diener, which surveyed past studies that used the scale to analyze 31 disparate populations — including Dutch adults, French-Canadian university students and the Inuit of northern Greenland — and discovered that members of intentional communities scored higher than 30 of the 31 groups. Living in an intentional community, the authors concluded, “appears to offer a life less in discord with the nature of being human compared to mainstream society.” They then hypothesized why that might be: “One, social connections; two, sense of meaning; and three, closeness to nature.”

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