To Meet Your Self-Care Needs In 2021, Gather Your Community—Virtual, IRL, or Both

All parts of wellness had a shake up this year—how we work out, what we eat, the products we put on our faces, the way we rest—and the reverberations of those changes will be felt into 2021 and beyond. Here's how the innovations born of this year will usher us into the future.

In a year that’s brought a pandemic threatening our very existence, a societal reckoning with systemic racism, and an election season fueled by hate not hope, it’s never been clearer how crucial it is to look after our own needs—emotional, mental, and spiritual. Practicing self care has often meant buying products and experiences to facilitate comfort and happiness, but with rates of loneliness and a number of other mental-health concerns surging, the pandemic has forced us to expand our understanding of what it means to effectively fill our own cup and heal with the help of both commodities and community.

“Self care is really important in tough times, but I think we often get the self care wrong,” says happiness expert Laurie Santos, PhD, professor of Yale University’s “Science of Well-Being” course, which has seen nearly 2.5 million enrollments on Coursera since mid-March. “We think it’s only about a nice bubble bath or a glass of wine alone, but the research shows that effective self care often looks a lot more like community care.” (For example, buying things for others has been shown to yield more happiness than buying for the self.)

Sarah Adler, PsyD, clinical director of Octave, says community care—that is, connecting with people who are as interested in helping you as you are in helping them—is at the heart of any effective self-care practice, particularly during pandemic times. "Human beings are social and desperately need connections with other people,” she says. But we’re also resilient, and the solitary time many have spent inside has made room for new connective habits to emerge. A lot of that is thanks to the proliferation of virtual communities, which have provided access for so many people to meet remotely and have facilitated self care and healing. Many consumers have realized that these relationships are much more supportive of their self worth and mental health than buying a new candle or moisturizing face mask.

“Self care is really important in tough times, but I think we often get the self care wrong. We think it’s only about a nice bubble bath or a glass of wine alone, but the research shows that effective self care often looks a lot more like community care.”— Laurie Santos, PhD

The internet has always provided access to various communities, but their breadth has increased during the pandemic, widening connection opportunities without geography being an issue—and consumers are into it. Take, for example, Zoom, which has mostly served as a video-conferencing platform for corporations since launching in 2013, but became a household name (and a veritable verb) by the end of this past March. Chief marketing officer Janine Pelosi says Zoom’s mission has “always been about connecting folks via knowledge and an exchange of ideas…but how much this is happening on the platform today, none of us could have predicted.” With 355 percent growth this year, Zoom now regularly sees nearly 3 million daily meeting participants, who are not only working but hosting happy hours, birthdays, and even weddings on the platform. And they’re predicted to use it for even more events into 2021: In October, the company launched OnZoom (still in beta), which will allow users to monetize hosted events like fitness classes on the platform.

Meetup, another global online platform, was created 18 years ago for the express purpose of connecting people to build in-person local communities. In March, it began hosting virtual events for the first time ever to meet shifting needs for human connection. “We used to say we use technology to get people off of technology. Now we say we use technology to build community—both community online and community in person,” says David Siegel. In its first six months, there have been 1.2 million online Meetup events with close to 10 million attendees, he adds.

For Naj Austin, founder and CEO of Ethel’s Club, a healing community for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), the pandemic forced her to reimagine her brick-and-mortar space as a virtual offering—and the effect has been huge in terms of reach. “The pandemic allowed us to offer our community all over the world, rather than just Brooklyn,” she says, noting that the pre-pandemic Brooklyn-based Ethel’s Club community of 180 has grown to a global digital community of more than 1,000. Other BIPOC-centering wellness communities have seen similar growth during the pandemic: Dive In Well recently launched the Disruption Lab, a membership-based offshoot of its virtual community to nurture collaborative creation; black girls breathing has seen more than 1,000 percent growth in virtual participation; and Sad Girls Club launched Soul Sessions, a free digital therapy offering, this year.

Access that virtual communities provide isn’t just important for connecting people who are geographically distant. As Siegel points out, virtual Meetup events have allowed connection for people who don’t have events in their city in addition to people for whom attending a Meetup event in person would be cost-prohibitive, requiring money for transportation, child care, admission, or otherwise. The ability to find like-minded people is greater than ever before with some of the biggest barriers to doing so being solved virtually.

The pandemic won’t last forever, though, and eventually we’ll feel comfortable connecting in person just as we did before. But that doesn’t mean virtual communities are leaving. Rather, a hybrid model of connection—one that blends real-life experiences with digital offerings to expand access and reach—is here to stay. “I would say we're going to end up being 30 percent online, 70 percent in-person a year post-pandemic, which speaks to the kind of staying power of online,” Siegel says. Nitika Chopra, founder of the just-launched Chronicon Community, a member-based virtual offering to help people in the chronic illness community foster connections, likewise predicts the long-term future for her brand will also include a hybrid style of enriching in-person and virtual connection."

Austin, who plans to launch Somewhere Good, a social platform to connect BIPOC folks with more than 3,000 people currently on the waitlist, in 2021, agrees. “After going global, we found that when you gather like-minded people, they want that feeling all the time,” she says. “Anything that gathers people will always be needed—it just shifts forms.”

Just as the proliferation of online dating didn’t render its in-person counterpart extinct, but rather provided more opportunities for people to find one another, the same can be said for the ways we’ll connect in 2021 and further into a post-pandemic world. That is, virtual communities won’t replace real-life ones but will permanently remain as a tool people can use to satisfy the human need for connection to both care for ourselves and each other—and to heal. As mental-health educator and therapist Minaa B., LMSW, says, "[In 2021,] I'm hoping that we just continue to do the work of taking care of ourselves. I hope that we continue to practice self care and community care, and I hope that we continue to be compassionate to one another."

Explore the rest of our 2021 Wellness Trends.

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