Our Fundamental Need to Belong
I hosted a little dinner party last night, a regular occurrence in my home. We were well into our second hour of sitting around the table, chatting about everything and anything, when one of my friends shared that someone she knew had been feeling very lonely lately, and as though she didn’t belong in the city. I was immediately struck by a feeling of pain for this person – who among us doesn’t know the agony of feeling out of place, as though you are not where you are supposed to be, that sense that one is a stranger to both themselves and to those around them?
Belonging – a word that is bittersweet in sound and almost agonizingly hopeful in nature – is absolutely critical to our personal well-being. Many other cultures have different words that they use to convey this very important element of our human nature. In Arabic, asabiyyah describes the concept of ‘community spirit’. In Swahili, the word tuko pamoja is translated as ‘we are together’. In Javanese, tjotjog means, quite literally, ‘to fit, as a key does in a lock’. Psychologists have argued that to belong is a fundamental human need. It is characterized by having positive relationships with people, and more specifically a group of people, that brings with it a sense of security, connection, and membership.
Belonging is centered upon having positive relationships with others, but it is also something more than that. It is that nearly indescribable feeling when you feel yourself slotting into a space that is just the right shape for you, that supports your weak spots in the ways you didn’t know you needed, that seemingly loves you despite all of your flaws and fears, and that elevates you to a place that was previously unimaginable.
And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters. – Kurt Vonnegut
Many researchers have studied belonging, and its inverse, loneliness. Belonging is positively correlated with many outcomes, including our physical health and emotional well-being. This feeling that one is embedded within a supportive context is also connected to a sense of increased meaning in life. Loneliness, on the other hand, has been shown to be more damaging to your health than smoking cigarettes, change the way that your genes are expressed, make it more likely that you will experience anxiety and negative moods, and even impact your intellectual achievements and self-control. In the United States, the rate of loneliness has risen from 11 percent in the 1980s to 40 percent in more recent years.
The statistic you need to know: those who are socially isolated are twice as likely to die early versus those who have belonging through their social interactions.
“Africans have a thing called ubuntu. We believe that a person is a person through other persons. That my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.” – Desmond Tutu
In today’s world, we have many facsimiles for belonging that have been borne by our technology. In many cases, this technology has been wonderfully beautiful for bringing together people: couples meet and fall in love online, special interest groups arise (no matter how obscure the interest), and new communities rally and support one another through digital mechanisms. Like all things, though, there is a shadow side. Recently, researchers have argued that digital devices are providing us with the false perception that we have relationships, but do not offer us the chance to truly, meaningfully engage with those relationships – which, as it turns out, might be the whole reason that they are so important. We are happier when we put work into our lives, directing our attention and energy towards the things that we deem personally meaningful; hundreds of online ‘friendships’ might not be enough, unless we take the time to invest in those relationships in a thoughtful way. Other research has found that the only time that the emotion of love is only present within our bodies is when we are physically in-person with someone else; therefore, online relationships rob us of the many benefits of love that arise when we are truly present with another person.
“To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence — and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that…” – David Whyte
One of the paradoxes of happiness is that we are both incredibly unique individuals who must assert our autonomy, and we are also hiveish creatures who yearn to be a part of something greater than ourselves; the incredible gift that belonging offers us is the chance to satisfy both of these needs, to connect with ourselves and with others in new ways. The need to belong creates within us what the poet John O’Donohue called the ‘divine restlessness of the human heart’: it compels us to push forward in our efforts at creating spaces, and making things, and finding people who meet us where we are at that exact moment, and incites within us both emotional and physical journeys that bring us home to ourselves, for a time; and then we are once again propelled onward, as we evolve in new directions.
As described so beautifully by O’Donohue:
The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.
In reflecting on my own life, one that has been characterized in great part by my pursuit of independence and cultivation of a sense of inner belonging, I have come to recognize that I would be nothing as an individual without the sense of belonging that has been provided to me by those who I love and who love me. Various communities have empowered me to follow my unique path, ensuring that I knew that I was loved and cherished no matter where it took me. I recognize my immense luck, in not having just one locus of belonging, but many. As our world continues to march forward in pursuit of ever-increasing productivity and trending towards even more prevalent physical separation, I find myself deeply concerned about so many who might yearn for that type of connection and support, both for the chance to receive it but even more importantly, for the chance to offer it to others.
I believe that we must both focus on cultivating our own inner sense of understanding of ourselves, and we must also, simultaneously, take time to cultivate and experience our connections with others. It is the positive interplay between the self and the group that enables us to truly thrive, creating within us the belonging and the longing for more, propelling us down the inevitable journey of our lives with well-being along for the ride as a companion.