On Belonging

What is behind our psychological need to belong?

Posted Apr 11, 2017

Much of human behavior, thought, and emotion stems from our psychological need to belong. In psychologist Christopher Peterson’s words, other people matter. In fact, they matter so much, that they become a source of our self-esteem. We may even base our self-concepts not only on our unique traits and characteristics (individual self), but also on the attachments we form with significant others (relational self), and the social groups we identify with (collective self), thus, continuously navigating our self-definitions between “I” and “we” (Brewer & Gardner, 1996, p. 84).

Emotional consequences of belonging have been well studied. Bonds with other people can become causes for happiness. Supportive social networks can act as buffers against stress. The feeling of being connected to others can be a protective factor against depression. Among students, a sense of belonging to peers and teachers can positively affect academic performance and motivation. For some, belonging and attachment to co-workers is a better motivator than money. Belonging can also contribute to a meaningful life, since being a part of a group connotes being a part of something larger, something that expands beyond the boundaries of our own self, thus promoting a sense of  “lastingness” and “continuity” (Lambert et al, 2013, p. 6).

Recent neuroscience studies have revealed that the brain uses similar circuits to deal with our social pleasures and pains as with our more tangible delights and woes. For instance, the brain’s reward system has been shown to respond as strongly to social rewards (e.g. social recognition) as it does to money. On the other hand, when social ties come undone and connections are severed, the resulting social injuries may not only become sources of copious ill-effects, but may also affect our brains in similar ways as physical injuries would. Thus, as some neuroscientists have suggested, human beings could be wired to feel pain when we are bereft of social connection, just as evolution has wired us to feel pain when we are deprived of our basic needs (e.g. food, water and shelter).

Source: CC0/Pixabay

So what does it feel like, to belong?

“Belonging is like stepping up on a platform and feeling like you are fully supported,” says Naomi Hattaway. In 2013, having recently repatriated to the United States, Ms. Hattaway founded a group called I Am A Triangle to help others like her who, as a result of frequent intercultural relocations, were re-appraising what it really meant to belong. The community has now grown close to 12,000 members (with an online engagement rate of 67%), offering Ms. Hattaway a glimpse into the very mechanics of belonging. What is, then, one of the earliest signs of belonging?

“Vulnerability,” she says. “Seeing others be vulnerable and become encouraged to ask questions and share stories is almost like watching belonging take shape.”

Belonging also takes shape on the grounds of shared experiences. The members of I Am A Triangle, for instance, may be scattered around the world, but they are connected through their common appreciation of what it’s like to find the thread of belonging over and over again—a task that is often among the most heart-breaking and at times heart-building aftermaths of moving. After the hundredth goodbye, belonging (to somewhere, to someone) can become a complicated feat. A feat that feeds both on the urgent hunger to connect and the quiet dread of the inevitable farewell. Sometimes, it can feel like walking with one hand stretched out to the world—open, gentle, receptive—while the other hand is pressed against the heart—guarded and reserved—where the cut of the latest dis-attachment heals.

Perhaps that’s when social belonging can act as a psychological remedy. Research by Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton has revealed how even the smallest social belonging interventions can yield lasting positive effects on individuals. In his study, minority college freshmen, who read and internalized encouraging messages from more senior students about the common and temporary nature of transitional hardships of the first year in college, reported improved academic performance, health and well-being for the rest of their time in college. Thus, a boost in belonging can also serve as a “psychological lever” for times of social setbacks. The key, it appears, is to interpret events from a more non-threatening frame, since “the impact of adversity depends on its perceived meaning - how it is subjectively construed” (Walton & Cohen, 2011, p. 1450). For the students in Dr. Walton’s experiment, it meant not attributing the challenges of the first year in college to their “fixed deficits” and feelings of non-belonging, but rather, seeing these setbacks as “short-lived” and, importantly, “shared” (Walton & Cohen, 2011, p.1448).

Belonging, thus, offers "reassurance that we are not alone," says Ms. Hattaway. That it’s not just us, even at times of loneliness and isolation (whether as newcomers to a college, or a foreign country). That our stories are validated and that our experiences matter. But there is one thing that can make belonging even more meaningful. It, according to Ms. Hattaway, is finding a way to give back to others.

“We forget how it feels to be filled up by giving to somebody else,” she says. “When I drink a glass of water, I can feel it hydrating me on the inside. When you give a service to somebody else, it’s the same: it fills you up on the inside. We all have something to give to this world. If we don't show up with our hands open or willing to give a smile, we don't know who will cross our path who might need it.”

So, day after day, we fan the flames of belonging by nurturing our bonds. By finding solace in each other’s humanity—that someone else has walked through our pain and someone else has tasted our joy. We need others. For completing the patchwork of our identities, with our singular traits and those that we share with kindred and friends. For the safety they give us to pursue our goals. For the affect and meaning they breathe into our lives (“Meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you,” writes psychologist Roy Baumeister). Sometimes, sitting across people who love us, with food on the table and laughter in the air, belonging is easy. Other times, when the warmth of home is a mere memory, a stranger’s kind smile will be the only promise that we are not alone. And then on other days, the best way to find belonging will be by letting others find belonging in us.

Many thanks to Naomi Hattaway for being generous with her time and insights. Naomi Hattaway is the founder of I Am A Triangle group. 


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