Why We All Need to Belong

Parents and child waving at video on a tablet screen

Where do you belong? You may think of a membership in a church, synagogue, or other faith organization. Or a sports team. Some people belong to a health club, book club, and/or political party. We may enjoy each to some extent, get frustrated, or decide to end our relationship.

Hopefully you belong to your current family and your family of origin. Members of your current family are the ones you turn to for support and love; the ones you support and love right back. You celebrate holidays together, vacation together, you navigate life together, keep mementos of special moments, have your own special ways of communicating, dealing with issues, and solve problems. I know I’m painting a rather idealistic picture here as some families are filled with chaos, anger, and dysfunction. Still, the people in the family are still members unless the family dissolves.

What does belonging actually mean?  Google defines it as “an affinity for a place or situation. We feel a real sense of belonging.” 

Very Well Mind shares the following:, “ In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belongingness is part of one of his major needs that motivate human behavior. The hierarchy is usually portrayed as a pyramid, with more basic needs at the base and more complex needs near the peak. The need for love and belonging lie at the center of the pyramid as part of the social needs.”  The article goes on to say, “A 2020 study in college students found a positive link between a sense of belonging and greater happiness and overall well-being, as well as an overall reduction in the mental health outcomes including: anxiety, depression. hopelessness, loneliness, social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.”  

Both of my daughters and their families live far away so I don’t get to see them in person very often, but I know we always belong to each other. Recently, I was able to spend a few days with my family and I was struck by all the ways we showed this sense of belonging. I was made to feel so welcomed by my daughter, son-in-law, and three grandsons. There was much hugging and snuggling. We played games, watched a movie together, and took a few walks with their very energetic dog. It was just assumed I would be included on the various errands and opportunities to attend the kids’ sports events. Being welcomed is different than people feeling obligated to include you. There was a certain joy in being united as a family. There was also a sense of permanence: I know these family ties will not end even though we are not able to see each other in person very often.

While hanging out with my family, I also felt a connection with my family of origin and enjoyed sharing with the grandchildren some stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents. The grandchildren seemed to enjoy learning about them. We can be united across generations by sharing memories like this.

Over these last few years of dealing with Covid and all the ways it has prevented us from physically gathering, I wonder how many people lost some of their sense of belonging. Yes, we can text and make phone calls or get on Zoom but it’s just not the same as in-person connecting.

I think of all the young people who struggle with some of the needs described by Maslow as essential for our ongoing well-being. How many of those symptoms of loss of belonging describe the experiences many of us have had and many of our young people struggle with: anxiety, depression, hopelessness, loneliness, social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Aside from the impact of Covid, I wonder if many of these are on the rise because of the decrease in belonging that young people, especially, are experiencing. Kids may technically be members of certain groups and have a family that is theirs, but maybe there is a hollowness in some of these connections, breaches, and interruptions such as those that happen after divorce. Sometimes there is the pressure to achieve and the fierce competition that goes with that but can leave young people feeling isolated and afraid. Parents can be so absorbed in their phones, jobs, or personal aspirations that kids end up feeling insignificant.

There is something gentle, nurturing, and loving when we have our networks of belonging. I recommend we all take time to consider how we can ensure that the people in our lives who are special to us need and deserve attention and reassurance that elicits the spirit of belonging. We can regularly express our love and sense of connection verbally, we can show these physically through hugs and pats on the back, and we can send notes in lunch boxes or spontaneous texts of affirmation. We can be on the alert if there is too much pressure on kids to achieve rather than experience activities that promote positive regard that are a part of belonging.

Belonging is a felt sense not some kind of fact. We might want to check in with the people who matter to us to ask if they know how important they are in our lives and to give them concrete examples that make it clear that they truly belong.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What are some of the organizations, groups and people you belong to? How would you describe your experience of belonging? How has it promoted a felt sense of affiliation, connection, safety, love and meaning?
  2. If you are low on having experiences of belonging, what are some things you can do to engage more strongly with groups that matter to you?
  3. How do you include others who might want to belong in your circle? How can you encourage, nurture and support them so they can experience that felt sense of belonging?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute