What do we mean by not belonging?
We all have a deep need for belonging and social attachment that begins when we are infants. People may experience a lack of belonging when they don’t feel accepted or included by others or don’t identify with a larger social group. This can happen in families, in school, in the workplace, or more broadly, within a community. When people are uncertain about social belonging or feel rejected, they may feel anxious or hopeless and experience low self-esteem and motivation. They may also be less likely to ask for the assistance that they need. People who are from minority, marginalized, or stigmatized groups may be more likely to experience a lack of belonging and its adverse impacts.
People may express a lack of belonging in ways that seem surprising: being pessimistic or giving up on goals that seem well within reach; rejecting help that is offered; avoiding social situations; being overly critical of themselves; and changing behaviors or looks to “fit in”.
The need to belong is literally “in our minds.” A landmark study of the neuroscience of social exclusion found that we experience social pain from social exclusion in the same areas of the brain that process emotional and physical pain. Studies have shown that social exclusion can also cause reduced cognitive performance.
How can not belonging affect health equity?
A sense of belonging is critical to mental health. Having a sense of belonging and the social ties that support it helps people manage stress and cope with difficulties. Children who lack a healthy attachment can feel rejected, distrustful and negative about the world. Among adults, poor social and coping skills that arise from feelings of not belonging can perpetuate the cycle and lead to depression, anxiety and suicide. There is less research on how not belonging specifically affects physical health, but the links to stress and depression suggest that not belonging could increase the risks of heart attacks, cardiovascular diseases and neurological conditions. Because stigmatized populations are more vulnerable to feelings of not belonging, their reluctance to seek medical attention could exacerbate health conditions. Wise interventions are a promising new area of mindset research and practice. These focus on the meanings and inferences that people draw about themselves, others or the situation they are in. In addition, places can be intentionally designed to help people feel like “this is a place for people like me.” Design elements include physical space, objects (like furniture and art), communications (language, stories), the roles people play, and the rituals or practices that occur there.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE
Signal acceptance; create opportunities to give back or pay it forward
A homeless shelter in Canada focuses on creating a space where people experience belonging and find connections, especially those from indigenous and trans communities. People who receive services are both guests and volunteers. One man’s job was simply to smile at people at the door. Others have the role of “compassionate listener,” responsible for building and holding conversations. Anybody can play a role in increasing a sense of belonging.
Validate client stories and experiences
Minority and first-generation students at a selective university listened to older students from similar backgrounds describe how they experienced and overcame obstacles. This simple intervention helped the younger students to get over feelings of not belonging and to reframe challenges as common and short term. It also improved their academic performance, health and well-being during college and beyond.
A study showing that when African-American students feel they belong in college, their grades and health improve. From the peer-reviewed academic journal, Science.
Study showing the neurological impacts of social isolation. From the peer-reviewed academic journal, Nature.
The most rigorous and comprehensive study establishing the effectiveness of AA ever conducted. From the peer-reviewed academic journal, Cochrane Reviews.
Landmark Study of the relationship between social exclusion and pain in the brain. From the peer-reviewed academic journal, Science. (Available at PubMed.)
Article citing research on why belonging is a fundamental need and how to achieve it. From Forbes.
Article describing the emotional, social, and cognitive effects of not belonging across a variety of contexts. From Psychology Today.
A summary of research on how social rejection and isolation show up in the brain. Chapter from Advanced Brain Neuroimaging Topics in Health and Disease.
Article describing how the sense of belonging develops and changes over our lifetimes from infancy, childhood and adolescence through adulthood and old age. From Psychology Today.
A searchable database of psychologically WISE interventions that help people flourish. From a team of social psychology/mindset researchers at multiple universities.
A resource for educators (and others) to think about designing spaces to enhance belonging and inclusion. From Stanford University d.school.
Executive Director, St. Louis Mosaic Project
Dr. MarYam Hamedani
Executive Director, SPARQ, Stanford University
Former Executive Director, One Just City, Winnipeg, Canada
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