Just by looking around yourself, it’s impossible not to notice the importance of social interactions and belonging to human society. From our earliest childhood memories and throughout life, relationships are crucial to our sense of belonging.
Experiencing belonging, knowing where and with whom we belong, is integral to human existence. As children, we first belong to our family, then a cultural group, a neighborhood, and a wider community. This is what helps us, as human individuals, form and define our identities and shape who we become.
The innate need to connect and to belong is as old as humanity itself. Even though each of us is an autonomous individual with our own objectives, we are also members of groups – or endeavor to be. Groups that guide us, teach us, and sustain us.
People thrive in groups, and through social comparison, they define their sense of self and social identity. They even achieve their goals more easily than if they worked alone. Actually, in recent years, numerous researches have shown that social connection lies at the heart of physical and psychological health, yet few of us realize how important it is.
An Illness of the Body and the Mind
Lonely people are more prone to anxiety, depression, and overall antisocial behavior, as well as other physical and/or mental health issues. According to Mavis Tsai, a clinical psychologist and research scientist and an Associate Director of the University of Washington’s Center for Science of Social Connection, loneliness “increases the risk of premature death as much as excessive smoking, drinking, and obesity.” The problem of widespread loneliness and the lack of social connection and integration has become so severe that it is now referred to as the ‘loneliness epidemic.’
Loneliness – a new Plague of the Modern World
A recent study done by AARP Foundation has shown that one in three Americans aged 45 and older is lonely. In actuality, it afflicts young and old alike. Though some individuals love to think they are better off by themselves, most of humankind strives for connection and to be part of something. As Radha Agrawal explains in her book Belong, isolation is the new epidemic. We are more alone now than we ever have been before. There are too many ways to communicate. We are online, we’re offline, we are completely confused as to how we find our people in this world.
For loneliness to exist, two things are required – a lack of meaning in a person’s relationships (or complete absence of it) and a sense of self as disconnected from others. Modernity has brought us the freedoms we desired, but it also brought uncertainty and isolation. Changes in economic structures, philosophy, and social life have created new ways of looking at the world and our place in it. Loneliness, with its rise of single households, less face-to-face interactions, and the influence of social media, became widespread and practically common.
All of this and more were a catalyst for Mavis Tsai to create Functional Analytic Psychotherapy. FAP is a contextual behavioral and rational therapy that harnesses the power of the therapeutic relationship in order to transform people’s lives. As she puts it, “Our ability to form close connections is not only at the core of our mental health, but interpersonal closeness helps us live longer.”
The Clash of the Two Pandemics
The intersection of the ‘loneliness epidemic’ and the current coronavirus pandemic is creating widespread alarm. With more than a third of the world’s population in total lockdown, and with social distancing becoming new normal, the risks of certain mental health problems, like depression, stress, and anxiety, are increasing. And the longer the pandemic goes on, the more these problems become long-term.
Social Distancing vs. Physical Distancing
Prompted by the need for a swift and massive behavioral change, the term ‘social distancing’ has become an everyday phrase used by media and politicians to describe national contribution to the fight against coronavirus. Though this term has proven its effectiveness as the initial call-to-action, it should be abandoned, because the lockdown measures involve only being apart from people – not being socially isolated from them.
As long as the physical distance is maintained, there is no need for cutting off connections with our friends and families. The availability of technology and social networks are clearly proving to be a benefit, so we should use them in all possible ways to maintain physical distance while fostering social connectivity.
The Power of Belonging and Social Connection
Having a sense of belonging is a universal experience. Belonging means being accepted as a member of a group and is a human need, just like the need for food, water, and safety. When people feel included and connected to others, they can be mentally and physically stronger and more resilient in difficult times.
When we unlock the power of belonging, we reach the ultimate form of freedom – freedom from having to change to be accepted and being appreciated and respected for being just who we are. Without it, people can only feel like outsiders – even intruders. This eventually leads to feeling excluded and silenced. Worse still, when people, especially as employees, don’t trust that they can express their opinions without being judged or punished, they will only say what company’s management wants to hear.
Creating a sense of belonging for people in any type of organization requires leaders to be engaged. They need to invest time and energy to understand what’s going on with their people – their goals, hopes and dreams, their insecurities, and fears. Fostering trust and belonging humanizes that organization and creates a place where people want to be.
During the Unlocking the Power of Belonging – Virtual Summit, thought leaders will meet to focus on feeling, understanding, and acting on the drivers to evolve and expand individuals and societies that thrive. If you’re a fellow new paradigm seeker and want to contribute with your ideas and dreams, we would love to feature you. Join us and become a part of the world’s happiness community.