The Importance of Belonging to a Tribe

The curative powers of group identity.

Posted Feb 19, 2020

As social animals, we have a "need to belong." We might not experience this need consciously or even be aware that we have it but it resides deep within us nonetheless. After all, in our historical past, we lived in tribes with whose members we spent our entire lives. Today, our "tribe" is often our immediate family—those with whom we live and share meals. However, given the fractured nature of today’s families (picture five people sitting in different rooms, each absorbed with their own screen), and given that unmarried adults often live alone or with roommates, our "need to belong" often goes partially or substantially unmet. What makes it important to address our need to belong to a group(s) is that it is not just a theoretical construct: It has real and significant implications for our emotional health.

Here are some of the ways joining a group and finding our "tribe" can improve our happiness and emotional resilience.

1. Group Identity Has Benefits. Belonging to a group and feeling identified with those in that group is an important aspect of our identity and sense of self. In fact, having a strong sense of group identity can actually help buffer us when we feel wronged or attacked. For example, studies show that those with a stronger sense of group identity are impacted less severely and recover more quickly when they experience bias or bigotry.

2. Purpose. Our group identity often gives us a sense of common purpose around the pursuit of common goals. For example, joining a political campaign can give us a strong sense of affinity for people we just met simply because we are pursuing a shared passion.

3. Support. We are not only more likely to get support from people within our "tribe," but we are likely to experience their support as more valuable and more meaningful. This happens because we believe fellow "tribe members" are more likely to truly "get" how we feel so their support and validation resonates on a deeper level than support offered by those who are not members of our "tribe."

For example, veterans returning from deployments overseas often feel lonely and disconnected from their families because they believe their spouse or relatives could not possibly understand the experiences they went through. That is why it is important they connect to other veterans—because the support they get from fellow vets registers more deeply and has a greater impact.

4. Battling Loneliness. Joining a group of people who share a common interest or purpose can jump start efforts to enhance our social connections. Not only are we more likely to feel a greater affinity for people who share our purpose or passion but such a group is also more likely to accept us and welcome us because of this common connection. For example, when people relocate to a new region, seeking out a local church, synagogue, mosque, or another spiritual venue is a way to jump-start their integration into the community and forge immediate connections that can buffer them against loneliness.

If you do not have a "tribe" of your own, take the time to seek one out or create one. Doing so requires effort and initiative but the return on investment will be worth it as it can give a significant boost to your quality of life and your emotional well-being.

Copyright 2020 by Guy Winch Ph.D.