One of the many things that is common to humans across cultures is the need to belong and be accepted by others. This is one of the reasons people seek to spend time bonding with family, friends, hobby-buddies, sports fans, and religious congregations. Whenever I’ve found myself musing aloud why we have this need, the answer I’ve received is: “Because humans are social animals!” But *why* are we social animals? Why do humans need to belong?
Let’s get something straight first, do we really *need* a sense of belonging?
The answer is a resounding “yes!”
Social psychologists have been studying our need for belonging for well over a century and one of the most famous studies on this subject was done by Abraham Maslow who in 1943 proposed that this human need to belong was one of the five basic needs required for self-actualization. In fact, after physiological needs (like food and sleep) and safety needs, he ranked the need for belonging as the next level up in his “Hierarchy of Needs”.
As will be seen, without belongingness, not only would we never make it past infanthood, but it is likely that we would be no-where near as evolved as we are today!
Why do we need this sense of belonging? Why do we need to be social animals?
It all boils down to: “Because belonging helps us survive”.
This is true looking at it from several different perspectives:
1.) Evolutionary perspective:
In the history of mankind, social people were far more likely to survive than hermits. Why? Because people helped one another to ensure their survival by:
a.) Hunting together to capture large prey which would have been impossible for one human to hunt alone. Many years later people worked together on farms, being able to grow and share a wide range of nutritious food thanks to the “many hands make light work” principle.
b.) Delegating community jobs, enabling division of labour, where it was typical for the women to cook the fresh kills from a hunt, freeing up the males to collect more food for the community. This saved time and allowed more food to be gathered and therefore secured longer survival.
c.) Reciprocity of helping one another build shelter meant that the task was done with increased speed and ease than if done alone.
d.) Safety in numbers meant that together, people protected one another and were able to save one another. If you’ve got more than one pair of eyes watching your back it definitely enhances chances of survival. If you belong to a group and have an important role to play in the group, it increases others’ motivation to protect you.
2.) Developmental perspective: We Learn that Belonging is Important from Infanthood:
As infants we are among the most helpless babies in the animal kingdom. Human babies rely on their parents to provide every basic needs, from food and shelter to love and affection. If human babies didn’t have the internal need to bond with their parents, and vice versa, there is no chance that babies would be able to survive on their own.
In order to give babies the instinct to belong to their parents, and to ensure that parents look out for their young, we’ve evolved to secrete neurochemicals like oxytocin, which drive our need to belong to one another because it makes “being together” feel good, triggering off feelings of happiness and love.
Since babyhood we learn that belonging feels safe and good, and so we seek it out later in life, trying to recapture it by surrounding ourselves with feelings of belonging to family groups, friend groups, partner-pairs and wider community groups.
3.) Motivation-based perspective:
Today whilst evolutionary and developmental reasons are still valid, one of the main forces driving our need for belonging is “reward and punishment”.
- Reward of bailing one another out in times of trouble: If you are helped in times of trouble, you are far more likely to want to reciprocate and help others who are in a similar position in the future.
In 50AD Roman slaves had an emergency fund to aid fellow slaves in need. Similarly, today our sense of belonging motivates charities that help those in need. If you were banished from the community, chances of survival are much reduced without this charitable give-and-take that comes with belonging.
- Reward of utilizing other people’s specialized strengths and skills to allow better progress of the group: This applies to every industry. One example of society groups using different people’s skills is as follows: If it wasn’t for people skilled in electricity, scholars in society wouldn’t have light to study with, and if it wasn’t for scholars finding cures for diseases, a lot of us would be killed off by disease.
If everyone fended for themselves, everyone would focus on gaining general knowledge needed for survival, and there would be no time or opportunity to specialize in any one field. The consequence? Progress in every field would be hindered severely.
- Reward of information from others: We have more knowledge as a group than individually, and this pooled knowledge is known as “transactive memories”.
OK, so maybe getting information about a good book or movie won’t be a matter of life or death, but getting the information about where the local burger joint is might be!
By exchanging information with others, better decisions can be made for important things in life that do affect survival, and this can not only increase survival rates but also can help society progress and evolve at a faster rate.
It is because of the view that groups form better decisions than individual people that we have democracy and juries in courts.
- Psychological rewards of feeling needed:
a.) Being needed gives meaning to life: Feeling needed when you belong to part of the group can give more meaning to your life and increases desire for survival. Ideally though, it’s best to have your own strong internal meaning of life that is independent of external things like belongingness, otherwise your reason for living is very vulnerable.
b.) Your belongingness to a group can boost your self-esteem, especially if the group is doing well. When you feel you belong, it comes with feelings of being wanted and loved, and this makes you feel more valuable. Ideally, we should all have this feeling that we are valuable from within, even if we don’t have a sense of belongingness. This can be achieved through internal work on confidence and self-love.
c.) Your group can give you a sense of identity: Ideally, your sense of identity should come from within you, and not from external locations, however many take comfort in a group giving them a sense of identity. When asked “Who am I?” lots of people would identify with their religion, their race, their profession – all groups they belong too. However your true identity isn’t any of these things. It is something unique to you and can only be found inside yourself.
d.) Belongingness gives you feelings of moral support from which you can draw strength. Ideally we’d want to draw strength from within rather than be dependent on others, but until we strengthen ourselves, belongingness to groups of people with life experience and compassion that can offer comfort can be our rocks in stormy seas.
e.) Belonging to a group can give you a direction in life. When you don’t know what *you* want to do with your life, social comparison and discussion with other group members can help guide you.
f.) Groups expressing the same value you want to express helps us with self-expression, particularly in people prone to repression. Expression is important for good mental health.
g.) Belonging to groups helps us make sense of the world around us. Stereotyping through belongingness to groups helps order the world (although whether it orders the world in a positive or negative way is not so sure!).
4.) Religious perspective:
From a Christian and Biblical perspective Man was made, not only as part of a pair (a small group), indicating that it’s God’s wish for Man to be a social creature, but also as a being that belongs to God. Belongingness began when God made Adam and Eve, and this belongingness binds every human being together in the group that is “God’s creations”.
For the non-religious, you could say that the fact that we are all human binds every human being into the same group of belongingness.
Deviations from the Norm
There are cases where people resist belonging or have difficulties belonging, like spiritual people who become hermits and meditate on mountains alone without human contact for months; people suffering from avoidant personality disorder, social anxieties, or autism spectrum disorders.
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