Belongingness

By Sarah Godfrey


In my book Life Works When – Piecing Together Happiness for a Successful Life, belonging is the third piece of the happiness jigsaw. It was the third piece because I believe that before we can make bonds with others in a healthy and happy way, it’s really important to build an understanding of self-care and purpose first. If you haven’t read them, follow the links and check them out.

I’m pretty sure you have all realised we are very socially driven creatures. We function so much better in groups and amongst like-minded people. Just think about social media, it is hugely popular because we all desperately want to belong. Even if it is by a bunch of strangers on the other side of the world. Who cares if you don’t really have a relationship with your followers or FB friends? You have a thousand likes and are part of something, that’s belonging, isn’t it? Or is it?

Let’s have a think about what belongingness is. To start with having and maintaining a sense of belongingness is one of our most basic needs and impacts upon our psychological and physical wellbeing. To belong really means we are able to develop attachments to groups or individuals. It is part of all our genetic makeup to want to be accepted and embraced into a group of some kind, (think family, culture, religion, relationships, social or work). It is this human connectivity that gives us a sense of being loved, similar and valued with and by others. In turn, this sense of belongingness allows us to give back to those we are attached to, increasing our wellbeing. (I am all about what we give back to this world as a part of our happiness).

We all have a slightly different version of what belongingness could look like. Each of us has our own unique interests, desires, attractions and motivations to seek and join with others. These variances help define who we are and show others how we can be identified as separate and part of social groups. Take me for example, I belong to a family group, a workgroup, a professional group, a social group, a relationship group, and a few different friendship groups. If I think more on it, I also have many peripheral groups, all of which give me a sense of belongingness. Some are more permanent than others. Some are stronger in the attachments than others. They all give me a sense of having a place in this world and the security of being loved, cared for or valued. And that creates happiness. If you don’t believe how important belongingness is to our happiness, as always, here are some evidence-based facts.

Psychologists Baumeister and Leary whose research on belonging and attachment believed that belongingness was an essential human motivator found in all cultures. The research showed that when belongingness isn’t achieved, it had serious consequences on our wellbeing. We all need to belong and when we can’t or fail to or are prevented from belonging to our social world, the outcomes are not good.

Leary showed that because of the effect an inability to belong had on our emotional, physical and social health, belongingness was not just something we wanted in life. It was a need. Just as the character Mo in my book, realised in not belonging he had grown increasingly unhappy, so to do we long for real, authentic bonds with others. It is in our DNA. We need to be a part of groups and relationships.

As Leary indicates, the quality of our bonds is far more important than the quantity. Our need for belonging is not met by superficial relationships. Belongingness, as a key to the jigsaw of happiness, has to be more than a like or follow on social media or an unknown FB friend. For Belongingness to work, our relationships must be meaningful, consistent, interactive and lasting. They need to grow and develop, mature and strengthen over time. Belongingness does not survive in conflict and abuse. Or in relationships that keep breaking down or are frequently damaged. Belongingness can only grow in healthy bonds that we maintain with truth, authenticity, love and compassion. It is an investment in happiness that, like most things in life, requires work and commitment.

Here are some more fun facts on belongingness and happiness:

  • Belongingness is a goal-directed action that only needs a minimum number of stable healthy bonds in order to be achieved. (Tick for quality!)
  • We don’t necessarily find more happiness from any extra relationships we may seek beyond those stable bonds. (Cross for quantity!).
  • These extra relationships can cause us more stress as they are more likely to end.
  • When we lose a sense of belonging with the end of a relationship, we look to replace it with a new bond, even if it is superficial. (Jumping straight into an intense new relationship straight after ending a long partnership would be an example of this.)
  • If we are missing belongingness from one area in our lives, we will compensate by seeking it in another area. (If you leave family and friends behind for a job you may try to establish strong bonds in your new work).
  • Intense feelings around commitment and intimacy do not replace regular physical contact to fulfil a need of belongingness. (Thinking your need for belonging will be met by sexting or an online romance, just won’t cut it.)
  • Just believing a relationship exists does not create a sense of belonging that will build happiness. (That’s any of you who think you are in a relationship with someone just because you like them.)
  • We are more likely to bond with those near us, over those who may live some distance but are more similar. (Frequency of physical presence trumps having the same hobbies every time.)
  • We can find a need to belong in negative (traumatic) as well as positive (healthy) experiences. (If you have seen the movie Speed, you know this is true. And they struggle to last.)
  • When we belong, we feel better, experience happiness, are more satisfied with life, care for others, are healthier and stronger physically and psychologically. (Belonging equals happiness)
  • When we don’t belong, we feel guilty, rejected, anxious, depressed, angry, alone, jealous and isolated. We are more inclined to show behaviour problems, commit crimes and have suicidal ideation. (Not belonging equals unhappiness.)
  • The psychological pain of not belonging involves the same areas in the brain as physical pain. (We really do feel loneliness like a physical injury.)
  • Impression management is a term where we try to control our image in order to influence others into accepting us into a group. (Not belonging can make us inauthentic in order to bond.)

So, there you have it. A little more background on the third piece of the jigsaw from my book to find happiness in life. To be happy means to achieve belongingness. Try to move away from online dating apps and social media chats and be present with the people, be part of groups, interact frequently in real life and have a constant physical presence in others’ lives. In this way, we can begin to believe we are in a stable, loving, ongoing and honest relationship that defines our need for belonging and increases our chances of happiness.

Next blog is on the fourth piece of the jigsaw, self-esteem. Stay tuned and don’t forget to get the book!