By Dr. Kelly-Ann Allen and Associate Professor Peggy Kern
Humans are social creatures. Most people have a deep desire to connect with others—not just as peers, co-workers, acquaintances, or Facebook “friends,” but deeply and intimately. We long to feel valued and supported. We long to share our thoughts, emotions, and life with others. And we long to feel needed by others. These desires reflect a fundamental human need to not only be in the physical or digital presence of others but also to belong with them.
Studies find that a sense of belonging is associated with numerous beneficial outcomes, whereas a broken sense of belonging increases the risk for psychological and physical dysfunction. Where does belonging come from, how does it unfold over life, and what impact does it have at different stages of our lives?
Early Roots of Belonging
From an evolutionary perspective, there are clear advantages to connecting with others. Tribal bonding increased the probability of finding food, provided protection from predators, and enabled reproduction.
The innate motivation for connection is deeply embedded in our biological makeup. Belonging begins before birth, through the psychophysiological connection that occurs between the mother and growing embryo. Parents who have experienced the loss of a baby or the inability to conceive can testify to the connection between parent and child and the sometimes unimaginable pain that comes with the absence of this bond.
After birth, infants could not survive without the care of parents or caregivers. Evidence for social cognition can be found as early as two weeks. From six to eight weeks, parents generally observe social behavior in their new infants—smiling, reciprocal verbal exchanges, and joint attention. These early social signs suggest a desire to connect with others and form social relationships. In cases where these early social milestones do not occur, it increases the risk of poor social relationships in childhood.
Sadly, the starkest evidence for our need to connect in infancy comes from studies on trauma and disorganized attachment. Poor attachments during early childhood increase the risk for long-term negative outcomes, including poor social skills, lack of emotional regulation and coping skills, and increased risk of mental health issues.
Belonging in Childhood
In early childhood, children begin to develop prosocial behaviors and an understanding of the self in relation to others. From 14 to 18 months, children begin to engage in helping behavior. Pre-schoolers begin to follow social norms and model their behaviors after caretakers, peers, and others they observe, signally a need to belong and feel included.
During this age, developmental disruptions can impact the extent to which social bonds are successfully created. The social difficulties experienced by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for example, do not necessarily indicate an unwillingness to connect, but rather a lack of understanding and ability to use the complex and often nuanced social rules that are often taken for granted.
The early years are important for developing social skills that help buffer losses throughout life. Focusing on belonging during the early years and at school provides a proactive approach towards fostering positive transitions into adulthood and beyond.
Typical developing children begin to develop an understanding of the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others around age 5. This builds a foundation for empathy, acceptance, and tolerance of others. Children are often quick to understand peer approval and inclusion once they start school.
Sadly, social patterns of rejection can become entrenched early. Schools are an important sphere of belonging for children at this stage. Among the most important relationships to emerge outside of the home during childhood include those with peers and those with teachers.
From late childhood through adolescence, peer groups increasingly become a dominant part of life, providing opportunities for belonging and social identity, but also the risk of rejection and ostracism. Teachers play a critical role in supporting a sense of belonging and connection to learning. Although conflict with parents tends to increase, parents provide an important foundation and source of support.
The adolescent brain undergoes significant changes, which intersect with the developing sense of one’s identity. Social isolation and exclusion experienced in childhood and adolescence can affect psychosocial adjustment and transitions into adulthood.
Belonging in Adulthood
Across adulthood, relationships play an important role in physical and mental health, although the sources of belonging often become disrupted, shift, and evolve. Societal changes; shifting social roles, networks, and expectations; and increased responsibilities influence the way we form bonds and friendships.
The desire for intimacy increases and romantic relationships are common. For many, roles shift from being part of one’s family of origin to starting and raising one’s own family. For parents, a tug of war can occur between work pressures and family life. Friend and social groups evolve from connecting around common social interests to connecting around common familial interests.
Disruptions in social patterns (e.g., trauma, insecure attachment, victimization, ostracism) that occurred through childhood and adolescence can re-emerge, straining relationships and increasing the risk for poor mental health.
For many, work becomes an important source of belonging with others, through shared interests with colleagues, a sense of purpose found in one’s work, and providing social interactions with others. Transition through unemployment, retirement, or relocation can create a loss of relationships and shift perceptions of the self in relation to others. People may experience a changing social identity in adulthood and question where they belong and with whom they belong.
A sense of belonging remains important in older age. Social relationships support healthy aging, helping to buffer feelings of loneliness, isolation, and related negative outcomes; providing emotional and instrumental social support; and offering a source of meaning and purpose.
Elderly individuals often have developed a greater appreciation of social connections. Friends and family remain very important, and social groups can provide a source of connection. But when these bonds erode, it can be difficult for this age group to develop new social connections.
Loneliness and social isolation can be common themes at this life stage. The risk of disease, disability, and death of oneself and others can disrupt prior connections. Physical and cognitive limitations can prevent and limit social connections. Many older adults are relegated to residential care, with little effort to help them connect with their facility. A natural loss of friendships at this age be compound feelings of isolation.
Feeling a sense of belonging during older age provides a sense of purpose, and positively relates to longer, healthier lives. Creating a public understanding of the importance of human connection at all ages and supporting strategies that foster connection helps support healthy aging across life.
Human connections are important across the lifespan. They begin early, constantly evolving, and extend through old age. They are impacted internally through human development, externally through changing social landscapes, and are dynamically impacted by interactions with and responses from others.
About the co-author, Dr. Peggy Kern
Dr. Peggy (Margaret) Kern is an associate professor at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. Originally trained in social, personality, and developmental psychology, Dr. Kern received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Arizona State University, a Master's and Ph.D. in social/personality psychology from the University of California, Riverside, and postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research is collaborative in nature and draws on a variety of methodologies, including big data, integrative data analysis, and mixed methods to examine questions around who thrives in life and why, including: (a) understanding and measuring healthy functioning, (b) identifying individual and social factors impacting life trajectories, and (c) systems informed approaches to well-being. You can find out more about Dr. Kern’s work at www.peggykern.org.