In today’s research digest, I look at unlocking belonging and how we navigate the complex world of connection and wellbeing.
Since coming to this role in 2017, there are topics that stand out when it comes to the student experience.
Belonging is one of those topics. In short, we want students who come to Flinders to feel like they belong here.
Despite its importance, I haven’t spoken much about it on the blog. I did dabble in this post on how long it takes to make friends, but that is just a small piece of the belonging puzzle.
So, let’s talk about it more 😊
As a starting point, I thought I’d focus on this 2021 narrative review article appearing in the Australian Journal of Psychology by Allen, Kern, Rozek, McInerney & Slavich, which I took some time to digest, alongside some dark chocolate (cocoa learnings)
The authors’ goals were to give individuals, researchers, and practitioners a framework for better understanding, assessing and cultivating belonging in themselves and others. I was interested in it because of insights it might provide into how we as individuals enhance our sense of belonging, but also how we as a university can foster a sense of belonging in students (and staff for that matter).
First, what is belonging and why is it important?
Taking from the article, belonging can be defined as a “subjective feeling that one is an integral part of their surrounding systems, including family, friends, school, work environments, communities, cultural groups, and physical places”. You feel like you are part of something. You feel anchored and connected to the world via the people, places, groups and environments in which you exist. You matter.
Belonging is often talked about as a fundamental human need and most people feel a deep need to belong. This makes biological sense given that if we are accepted into a group (or groups), our chances of staying safe increase. Safety and connection form a foundation upon which we can cultivate and enjoy positive social relationships, academic achievement, occupational success, and better physical and mental health. Conversely, not feeling like we belong can indicate a lack of safety, which distracts us from those other pursuits and pushes us to seek out those connections.
A chunk of what we know about the positives of a sense of belonging come from our understanding of the importance of relationships to health and wellbeing. Deficits in social relationships (quantity, quality) across the lifespan predict a range of negative health outcomes – depression, poor sleep quality, rapid cognitive decline, cardiovascular, and reduced immunity. Not feeling like one belongs or experiencing rejection can increase the risk for mental illness, antisocial behaviour, lowered immune functioning, physical illness and early mortality. Social isolation/loneliness has been compared to smoking in terms of health risks.
And loneliness is of increasing public health interest in Australia with 1 in 6 people reporting feeling severely lonely.
Now to be clear, a sense of not belonging and loneliness aren’t quite the same thing. Loneliness and social isolation refer typically to our experiences of connection with other people, whereas belonging is a feeling that can be applied to people, places, culture, groups, organisations and more. But they are related, and the growing loneliness statistics point to a problem many have in achieving a sense of belonging.
If this is you, stay tuned. We’ll explore the conditions that give rise to people feeling like they belong.
How do you foster a sense of belonging?
A sense of belonging is a subjective feeling, more so than an objective assessment. This means it is meaningful to ask yourself “do I feel like I belong?” and then notice the thoughts and feelings that emerge in answer to that question.
You could also consider the distinct groups to which you are attached (e.g. family, friends, colleagues, peers, organisations etc) and ask yourself how connected you feel to those groups. You might find a greater sense of connectedness to some versus others. For example, I feel a greater sense of belonging to my immediate colleagues, than I do to past colleagues (sorry past colleagues!!).
There are many things that feed into our sense of belonging at any given point in time: biology, our history & experiences, social forces, cultural factors, where we are and who we are around. These combine to shape our sense of identity in the moment and that includes perceptions of the people, places and groups that we do (or do not) feel like we belong. So I might be at work, with colleagues, brainstorming a new project and experience a strong sense of professional identity and connection with the people around me – I feel like I belong. Later that day I might be home alone, watching the news from another part of the world, and feel quite disconnected.
So, our sense of belonging at any given point is a function of who we are, interacting with the context we are in. With that in mind, it is normal for one’s sense of belonging to fluctuate over time. In the article the authors make the distinction between ‘state’ and ‘trait’ belonging. State belonging is how you feel right now, in the moment, in relation to your sense of connectedness with the people, places, objects and contexts around you. And it is normal to experience times when we don’t feel like we belong. Spend a day on your own, isolated from others and your state belonging might be quite low.
Trait belonging however is a more stable and global sense of belonging across time and different contexts. It is the one we are trying to maximise through building and nurturing long-term connections to people, places and groups. Which begs the question, how is that done?
The article points to 4 underlying components of belonging: competencies, opportunities, motivations, and perceptions. Think of them as conditions that can be fostered by individuals or groups that support a sense of belonging. As we go through them, think of how you might foster these conditions in your own life AND for the people around you (remember, your choices not only affect your own sense of belonging, but that of the people around you).
These are the skills and abilities to connect with and relate to others. At an interpersonal level we might call them social skills. They include things like being aware of oneself and others, managing one’s emotions and behaviours, good verbal skills, being able to communicate interest via nonverbal communication, seeking similarities/things in common, following social norms, active listening etc. Generally speaking, the better our social skills, the better outcomes we have in social interactions, and the more connected we feel to those people.
But other skills contribute to a sense of belonging as well, especially when we are considering the extent to which we feel we belong to things like place, culture, work and community. These include the ability to acknowledge and align with cultural norms, understand one’s heritage, develop a sense of identity, be productive, the mindful acknowledgment and connection to place and country, and awareness of yours and others’ values.
We start acquiring these skills from an early age, as we interact with people, places, groups and community. We watch how other people interact and act in the world. Where possible, we try to model ourselves on those we think do a good job of integrating. Depending on the experiences you had growing up and how well they match your current circumstances, you may have strengths and deficits in some of these skill areas. For example, I do casual interactions OK and can generally form effective work relationships but fall down when it comes to sharing my feelings in close friendships and relationships. Having a mixed bag of social skills is really normal. Modern social contexts are complicated, and it’s unlikely you’ll have the full range of social skills necessary to navigate them.
Good news is that we can always upskill in these areas. I like the concept of increasing one’s access to low-stakes social interactions where you can be around and interact with other people, without the pressure of needing to get it perfectly right. Attend some training as part of the Horizon program or participate in Conversation groups at Oasis. Strike up a brief conversation with the coffee person in the morning or smile at a couple of people on the bus. On campus, take advantage of informal opportunities to chat with others as a time to practice small talk. As you practice interacting in different contexts you get better at interacting overall. Some of those interactions, spread over time, can become the basis of strong connections. I was always taken with a colleague of mine, who having been at the university many years, had formed lots of deep connections with people from all part of the university, all through nurturing casual interactions.
If you want to learn some specific techniques for improving your capacity to connect with others, try here.
It’s obvious but worth naming – to connect you need opportunities to connect. You need the availability of groups, people, places, times, spaces, events so that you can form relationships with those things. Not just relationships with people but with culture, heritage, place and community. If opportunities to connect are blocked or you are excluded from them, it hampers the development of a sense of belonging. As an example, students who study entirely online can sometimes feel less connected to the university because they don’t have the chance to be on-campus (connection to place) and around other students (connection to peers).
Social opportunities tend to come in the form of active membership of extracurricular groups, schools, universities, workplaces, church groups, families, friends, friendship groups, hobbies and interest groups. As a Flinders student, you might benefit from learning about the different clubs and associations that exist. It isn’t clear to me whether entirely online groups provide individuals with the same sense of belonging that groups with a face-to-face component do. Regardless, the priority here is participation and giving yourself the opportunities to connect with others.
But what about connection with things other than people? Perhaps find some places on campus or nearby where you live that you enjoy being in. A favourite spot in the library. A spot by the lake. A walking trail that you visit regularly. I have found gardening both an enjoyable activity but also helps me build a place (the garden) where I feel at home. Engage with art, music, dance, movies, TV shows, plays that you resonate with to connect with culture. Find opportunities to work or volunteer in the community.
It is worth noting that there are healthy and unhealthy opportunities to connect. Sometimes if we feel excluded from mainstream connections, we turn to fringe groups that operate outside of standard social norms. The need to belong can be stronger than the need to act in accordance with our own values, so we can find ourselves engaged with groups that aren’t consistent with who we want to be, but that fulfill the role of making us feel part of something. Be mindful (and maybe patient) to join in with opportunities that resonate with who you want to be as a person (i.e. are value consistent)
Enhancing one’s connection skills and seeking out and taking advantage of opportunities requires motivation. There have been times in my life when I felt a strong motivation to connect with others. There were times that I felt no drive at all.
That motivation presents as a need or desire (inner drive) to connect with others, to be accepted, belong, seek social interactions and connections.
One quirk about motivation to belong that is worth wrapping your head around is that it feeds AND is fed by positive experiences of connection.
Motivation to connect –> actions to connect
Successful actions to connect –> motivation to connect
Those who are motivated to seek belonging have often had positive interactions with others, have sought out interpersonal connections, had positive experiences of long-term relationships, dislike negative social experiences and actively resist the loss of attachments. Their good experiences feed the motivation to continue to seek out and nurture those experiences.
Those who do not seek out belonging may have experienced repeated rejection and thwarting of their basic needs. They’re less motivated to seek out belonging because of the expectation of negative outcomes. This can end up as a vicious cycle where low motivation means few connection opportunities which means a growing sense of low belonging and low motivation.
It is worth noticing if you are a bit conflicted/ambivalent when it comes to motivation to connect. At one level you want to belong and build connections but also find yourself not following through with actions/ decisions that would make it happen. Ambivalence is normal part of a change process and reflects mixed emotions about the situation. Start by identifying and naming some of the factors that might be at play here: bad past experiences, lack of self-confidence, few opportunities. Then start with simple connection opportunities that are equal to your motivation. You might not be ready to join a club and take a leadership role, but you might be happy joining an online Discord group and seeing how the community interacts.
There are connection opportunities that don’t require a huge motivation to enact. And remember it isn’t just about people. You might start by nurturing a connection to a place (tidying your room), learning more about your or another’s culture (visiting an art gallery) or joining an online community based around a hobby or interest. Titrate the connection opportunities to where your motivation is at and as you find pleasing connections, it will feed into your motivation to keep pursuing them.
Our past experiences shape our current ones. The way you perceive and experience the world now is shaped by your history. It is like our history is a set of glasses through which we see the world. This means our past experiences of connection can shape how we behave in our current ones. For example, a person with a history of rejection or ostracization might interpret a neutral or even positive interaction as threatening and retreat. Someone who has struggled to engage people’s attention in the past might engage in maladaptive behaviours to seek approval from others.
When I first started learning about loneliness, I was a little surprised to find that one of the best approaches to tackling loneliness is not to just give the person opportunities to connect, but actually to engage them in a therapeutic process so that they gain some insights into their perceptions of self, others, belonging and connection. Sometimes we aren’t fully aware of how we perceive the world and how it affects our behaviour and motivation. I might not be aware that I have a deeply negative view of myself and that it prevents me being more authentic around others and ultimately hampers connection.
A persons’ perceptions shape how they interact and if those perceptions are misaligned with their current circumstances (perhaps reflecting some difficult past experiences) the person may continue to struggle, even if given ample connection opportunities. Therapy is a primary channel through which we sort through our perceptions of the world, but there are other channels as well: journalling, writing. introspection, mindfulness training.
To get an initial feel for the role your perceptions play, ask yourself:
- what words would I use to describe myself?
- what words would I use to describe other people (in general)?
- what words would I use to describe the process of creating connections with people?
I find, when I do this, that I discover that I have generally positive views of other people, negative views of myself and classify the process of connecting with others as difficult, challenging and scary. I can then see how these shape my social connection opportunities. For example, I use a fair bit of self-deprecation, assume others are more interesting than me, and can get flustered leading into different social situations. They also shape how I then interpret and classify connection opportunities after they happen. I can easily convince myself an interaction went badly despite objective third-party evidence that it didn’t.
The key takeaway here is that our beliefs about self, others, relationships and connection shape our subjective experience of belonging. Investigation of those beliefs might help us reframe negative social interactions and experiences and normalise feelings of not belonging. This investigation of beliefs is at the centre of a popular and effective model of therapy called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Understanding your beliefs about self, other and the world may provide you insights into how you might better integrate into that world.
If you want to build a sense of belonging (with a focus on connection with other people):
- develop and practice the skills to engage with others and to connect to place, community and culture
- seek out new and different opportunities to meet and engage with others, from the simple (coffee cart) to the more complex (e.g. starting a relationship)
- assess your level of motivation and ambivalence to connect and adjust the opportunities accordingly. Don’t abandon efforts to connect but recognise there will be times when you are more or less motivated to do so.
- if you tend to perceive interactions negatively, try balancing that with deliberate attempts to notice the positives
If you want to support someone else in feeling like they belong:
- be receptive to informal connections during the day, knowing that the other person might appreciate the chance to practice their connection skills
- take an active role in setting up opportunities for your peers to connect such as study groups, clubs, associations, and college-based events
- take note of the positive effects of belonging in your own life and if you get a chance to mentor someone, share those learnings
- provide others accurate feedback on interactions you’ve had with them, to help them develop accurate social perceptions
The published article had many purposes, but I focused in on what the article says about how we might, as individuals, increase our sense of belonging, with attention paid also to how we might support others to feel like they belong.
My final comment here relates to another psychological quirk, noted in a few places in the psychological literature. Namely, that when we focus too much on ourselves and our own happiness, we can paradoxically experience poorer wellbeing. If we focus too much on our own sense of belonging, we might end up deteriorating it. So consider how you might use the principles from the paper (competencies, opportunities, motivation and perceptions) to support someone else to feel like they belong. You may discover it helps you at the same time.