On Belonging

belonging health longevity place social connection Apr 12, 2023

I recently caught up with a friend who relocated to the West Coast. She’s originally from the Midwest. She and her husband did a lot of research before their move. Climate, access to the outdoors, and availability to centers of employment, among others, all lined up. She even went to the proactive measure of meeting some of the people in her targeted neighborhood. People loved living there.

Several years into their move, however, she’s found it hard to make deeper friendships. Those around her don’t prioritize relationships the way she does. She and her husband fit in in a number of ways, but they are missing a sense of belonging. This one element may be enough for them to search for a new home.


The sense of belonging between a baby and her mom begins in the womb (Photo by Alicia Petresc on Unsplash)

What is Belonging?

There is no widely accepted definition for belonging. According to social psychology, belonging is an innate motivational drive to form and maintain positive emotional bonds with others. However, despite the definition above, belonging does not always involve the presence of other people, as one can feel a sense of belonging to a place, such as a specific urban or bucolic setting. Brene Brown defines belonging “as being accepted for you; fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”


Belonging as a Human Need & Its Benefits

Our brains are wired for belonging starting before we are born. A fetus’ heart literally beats in tandem with the mother’s. Further, “biobehavioral synchrony” is a process where hormones and brain activity of a baby mirror that of the caregiver. These early moments create a foundation for the capacity to connect with others.

Scholars deem belonging to be as important as our need for love and as necessary for survival as food and water.

The benefits of having a sense of belonging are significant and multi-faceted. Individuals who experience belonging are happier, healthier, and more resilient. People with a sense of belonging benefit from bolstered immune systems, which protect them from stress and disease.


Belonging is particularly low at the local level (Source: The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America)


State of Belonging in the U.S.

Based on a new national report, The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America, funded by the Walmart Foundation and the Omidyar Network and authored by Over Zero and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging, belonging in the U.S. has room for improvement. In the areas of family and friends, approximately 60% of people expressed a sense of belonging. However, in areas of work, nation, and local community, only 36%, 32% and 26%, respectively, expressed to belong. The data was collected in December 2021 but there is little reason to believe these figures have changed materially since then.


Implications of Low Sense of Belonging within Communities

A low sense of belonging within our local communities is a concern and one that was raised decades ago by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone: Collapse and Revival of American Community. Fraying of our social fabric has implications at the individual and societal level. As one example, people with a strong sense of belonging have a much greater trust of their neighbors, local residents, local government, and other Americans than those with a low sense of belonging. A lack of trust with others around us makes it difficult to forge relationships and help each other when necessary.

As we look to find our place and sense of belonging, this search can be particularly difficult if most members of most communities don’t have a sense of belonging. In such cases, welcoming others is less of a priority as is a shared responsibility and opportunity to improve their local communities. We are best to work harder in our search to identify places where we truly belong – and others have a strong sense of belonging, too.

At the same time, the results from the report represent an opportunity. It suggests, particularly for those who do have a strong sense of belonging (incidentally, such people are very satisfied with where they live), for each of us to enhance the broader sense of belonging in our communities. This can come through including a broader set of people in communal activities and gatherings, particularly in ways that give more people a voice in our local communities. Such actions could increase a sense of belonging throughout the community and attract others that wish to be weaved into this culture.


People are more likely to help each other in trusting communities and trust is highly correlated with people that have a high sense of belonging to their place (Photo by Astrid Schaffner on Unsplash)


Don’t Overlook Belonging

Belonging is complex but critical to life satisfaction and healthy longevity. For some, like environmentalist and poet Wendell Berry, a strong sense of belonging is felt through physical place. However, for most of us, it is more strongly expressed through our emotional connection to others, opportunities to be our authentic selves, and agency in creating an environment that we value. It can be challenging to find a place that meets each of these dimensions, but it may ultimately be more valuable than weather, access to desired amenities and cost of living. Don’t overlook belonging or else extensive efforts to find the perfect place may leave you unsatisfied and initiating another move.


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