When reflecting on the self, people often think about distinguishing themselves from others. In our culture in particular, self-expression is about trying to demonstrate one's uniqueness. Someone is smart, beautiful, or athletic when they exhibit those qualities to a greater degree than others around them, and our society rewards those who distinguish themselves in such ways professionally, socially, and financially.
But despite this emphasis on making the self stand out from others, there is another element that exists between the self and others -- belongingness. Here, the self seeks connectedness and harmony with others rather than distinctiveness and uniqueness. In the past 25 years, we have begun to understand the importance of belongingness to one's overall happiness, health, and in contributing greater meaning to life.
Loneliness kills: Literally
Belongingness can provide people with considerable social support, which directly promotes happiness and health. Indeed, hundreds of studies have documented that social support has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system, the immune system, and even on gene expression (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Uchino et al., 1996). Being social excluded seems to have a negative impact on all people, even when people are rejected by those who they vilify (Williams, 2007).
In short, people with greater perceived social support enjoy greater self-esteem, fewer illnesses, and longer lives. In fact, research in our own lab has shown that people not only demonstrate better outcomes (e.g., less depression, less loneliness, greater self-esteem, greater happiness) from better quality relationships with people, but that even the quality of interactions with one's dog can provide additional benefits above and beyond human social support (McConnell et al., 2011). Social connection is a perception rather than an objective quality, and many sources may play an important role in augmenting one's sense of connection and belongingness.
Promoting happiness: It is better to give than to receive
Another recent lesson from the research literature is that we are actually happier when we give to others than when we give unto ourselves. One interesting benefit of social belongingness is that we spend a good amount of time caring for others, and recent research has shown that even in a consumer-driven culture, we can be happier when we address others' needs instead of our own.
For example, Dunn and colleagues (2008) found that people report greater happiness when they spend more money on others (e.g., gifts for others, charities) than for themselves (e.g., gift for the self, daily expenses). Although their survey assessed over 600 people, correlational studies have many weaknesses (e.g., maybe poor people are less happy and cannot give money to charities). To rule such possibilities out, Dunn and her collaborators conducted an experiment where they gave people an unexpected financial windfall and required that people spend the money either on themselves or on others. Even though people anticipated that spending money on themselves would make them happier at the end of the day, it turns out the opposite was true -- people were happier when they spent the money on others. These findings have been replicated a number of times and in many cultures (e.g., western, third world), and the findings are robust (Dunn & Norton, 2013).
Belongingness benefits minority students in the classroom and beyond
Finally, some very recent research has shown that increasing people's sense of belongingness can help people, and minority students in particular, withstand the challenges of negative stereotypes in the classroom, producing higher GPAs and better health. Work by Geoff Cohen and colleagues (e.g., Cook et al., 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2011) has shown that even short interventions can have profound impacts going forward for years to come.
In their work, these researchers provided students with an intervention designed to self-affirm their most important values (e.g., family, friends) by asking them to write about their importance and to elaborate on their feelings (control participants did the same but focused on less important values). These self-affirmation exercises only take a few minutes to complete, but they are designed to help students respond to everyday adversity with a greater sense of global competence and personal integrity. Even those these interventions are subtle, they help people respond to initial threats in the classroom (e.g., a bad quiz score, not performing well in a classroom exercise) more effectively because they reinterpret these challenges as expected setbacks rather than conclusive demonstrations of a lack of ability or that one does not "fit" in the academic environment.
It is this perception of "do I fit?" that seems critical to student resiliency. The students who performed the self-affirmation exercises reported greater academic belonging (past work has shown that this feeling of "I fit in here" is critical for academic motivation, engagement, and success), which led to a positive virtuous spiral of positive interpretations of setbacks as challenges rather than indictments. These students, compared to control students, reported a greater ability to succeed and thrive and to find other people in school who would accept them. Accordingly, their grades improved. In fact, three years after this intervention, minority students closed the "race gap" in classroom grades by the end of their high school years. The effects, amazingly, went far beyond just grades. These minority students who performed the self-affirmation exercise also had greater happiness and well-being, and they needed fewer trips to see doctors.
The benefits of belongingness (in this case, academic belongingness) that comes from self-affirmation can benefit anyone, but the existent research indicates it is especially powerful for students who face stigma (e.g., African American students). Majority students often feel like "they belong in the classroom" more than minority students, which explains why self-affirmation is so powerful for those who are more prone to worry about their sense of fit. By viewing oneself as someone with positive core qualities, students can experience greater success and well-being because their sense of belongingness is enhanced.
In this post, I've described a few of the many benefits that come from greater belongingness. We have seen evidence that social connection improves health and well-being and that people can experience belongingness with entities ranging from people to pets. Further, giving to others instead of one's self produces greater happiness and well-being, despite people's own intuitions to the contrary. Finally, we have seen that in the classroom, modest self-affirmation interventions can have profound effects, especially for minority students, in feeling that "they belong" in academic settings, resulting in greater identification with academics, better grades, and even healthier lives.
To bring things full circle, these diverse bodies of research indicate that the self benefits considerably from belongingness. Feeling that one has meaningful connections to others benefits the self, and helping others can bring greater happiness than helping oneself. It is probably not surprising that some of the greatest recent figures of human enlightenment (e.g., the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr.) emphasized the importance of concern for others and participating in movements that transcend oneself. Recently, research on the self has provided empirical and scientific documentation of the benefits of connection to others, demonstrating the critical nature of social support and belongingness to well-being, health, and happiness.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: Norton.
Dunn, E. & Norton, M. (2013). Happy money: The science of smarter spending. New York: Simon and Schuster.
McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.
Walter, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425-452.