As we progress through life, we weave in and out of different paths, discovering hobbies, passions, and a working life that often forms the backbone of our routine.
There will come times when we feel we belong and times when we feel we don’t belong throughout this journey. We'll sometimes feel like we're an outsider or don't fit in and struggle to gain satisfaction and contentment from our environment.
We might spend a good deal of life exploring our options before something just 'clicks', and we feel like we belong - like we can finally settle down.
That’s the kind of thing you see happen in the movies when someone steps into a new country or new city and goes, "Woah, I think I belong here".
But what about in real life?
A personal anecdote
Like many others in the 1970s, my mother and father upped sticks in the UK and travelled to New Zealand to pursue a new life.
They probably spent 4 to 5 years there before they returned.
As they say, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Though the grass in New Zealand is very green indeed, those distant pastures didn't provide a sufficient sense of belonging to convince them to stay.
This story might already echo with some - it resonates with me and my time at university.
It always hit me how returning home evoked a stronger sense of belonging. Despite the new friends I'd made and the fun I was having, obtaining that more profound sense of belonging was somewhere beyond - it seemed unattainable to me at the time. It wasn’t the people, and it wasn't the place. It was a combination of everything.
In the end, I returned home to where I felt I belonged at that time of life - with my parents and long-term childhood and adolescent friends. I returned to university closer to where I lived and didn’t regret it.
Was that sense of misplacement at university something I did? Did I not work hard enough to establish my new home - my new sense of belonging? Or did I crave the security of home? Was I not courageous enough? Or just not ready?
Looking back, the contradiction of the whole situation is obvious - and it also relates to the topic of loneliness. Despite being connected to others beyond a superficial level and immersed in their company, we can still feel lonely.
In the end, I feel the purpose of this small self-investigation was to humanise the question of belongingness and illustrate a couple of examples of how we can lose our sense of belonging.
What is a sense of belonging?
Belongingness, as it’s known in social science, sociology, psychology and philosophy, tends to be defined as our subjective need for positive regard and reciprocal value between ourselves, community, culture and society.
Crucially, though, belonging isn’t simply about being ‘part of’ something else, like part of a club or a subculture of some kind. It’s more about the contentment and satisfaction we give and receive to and from that ‘something else’.
Belonging is a two-way street - it is reciprocal
Think about one of your favourite childhood toys. That toy meant something to you on different levels; you held it in high positive personal regard, enjoying the use of it, its company and its presence. The toy probably evoked emotions of its own, helping create feelings of attachment and belonging. If the toy were alive - those feelings would probably be mutual.
You might feel like you belonged to that toy in the same way it belonged to you - that sense of belonging is reciprocal.
This article from The Guardian features some candid descriptions of the strong sense of emotional connection and rapport people build between themselves and their childhood belongings.
The relationship between ourselves and our childhood toys is a very pure and simple form of belonging - that is why we call our possessions our ‘belongings’, after all.
But away from this pure and simple example of belonging, belonging is a somewhat different beast in the big, wide world. It isn't a cute teddy bear, and for many, it can be tricky to tame.
Belonging in the community
Belonging is heavily linked to our environments and communities. In many ways, the community is where our sense of belonging is starting to weaken, and that's where we need to act to reestablish it.
ONS data has shown that our sense of community - our community spirit - is waning in recent years.
Speaking of these findings, Sunder Katwala, the director of think-tank British Future, said:
“These new findings underline something that many people have felt for some time – that we have become less connected with our fellow citizens. Our society is more divided than any of us would like” - Sunder Katwala.
Specifically, fewer people feel like they belong to their community or that they have any community at all. More people feel alienated from their community. Conversations with neighbours are more infrequent; conversations in public are rare.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the anatomy of all society, fragmenting communities at almost every level. Communal life will return - and it will feel great - let's hope we value it that bit more when we can get out and enjoy being immersed in the company of others.
Not to digress, but I recently sparked a conversation with a stranger on the tube, asking about his band t-shirt. It's not something I'd typically do, I was tired, and I let my guard down - it just slipped out of my mouth, and the next minute we were chatting.
We both knew this was a rare event - it was tangible, not just between us but between everyone around us. We exchanged words to that effect after talking about the impact of coronavirus on the music industry. He was a bassist, and I'm a drummer. It was a small moment with considerable emotional power - I reckon we both walked away with a spring in our step.
In Psychology Today, Karyn Hall speaks of these sorts of encounters. She says that concentrating on similarities has the powerful effect of glueing people together. Music is a massive one here and has been creating a sense of community for thousands of years.
“To build a sense of belonging requires active effort and practice. One way to work on increasing your sense of belonging is to look for ways you are similar with others instead of focusing on ways you are different.” - Karyn Hall, Psychology Today.
How to feel a sense of belonging
But what are some strategies for finding a sense of belonging?
1) Volunteer in the community
Communities exist all around us - we just might not be part of one yet.
By getting out into the community, we can immerse ourselves in the lives of others. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by volunteering. Volunteering opens up a new world of possibilities, a wealth of new opportunities that put us in contact with others from many walks of life.
The benefits you gain from volunteering have been under study for some time. Volunteering has been linked to improved mental and physical health, improved cognition, and greater happiness and personal life satisfaction.
This article follows Suzanne Casey, who joined a health clinic as a nurse aide after her husband passed away. Quotes of her experience say it all: "I felt like I'd found a new purpose," "I wake up with a smile on my face because every day is a new possibility.” She even said her physical health improved and her blood pressure reduced.
Volunteering is directly and indirectly linked to a sense of belonging - many people ‘find themselves’ by immersing themselves in charity work. What’s more is that by getting yourself out in the community and volunteering, you’ll have the opportunity to strike those small conversations that put a spring in someone’s step.
2) Seek out new interests and foster existing ones
According to Very Well Mind, belonging is found by those who search for it. Joining activities, groups, hobbies, and other small and large communities put us in contact with new individuals with whom we share similar interests.
Very Well Mind points out that patience is key. Acceptance and mutuality between members of a group will take time to form. Be aware of not coming on too strong - let things glue together in their own time. Also, be aware that you’ll likely not be the only one in a quest for a sense of belonging. This is a commonly experienced emotion that comes around to most people at some point in life.
Be open and honest about your willingness to try new things. New interests lead to new opportunities.
It’s not just about immersing yourself in new 'stuff' but fostering your existing interests, especially ones that might have fallen by the wayside in recent years. Whether it's getting out to a gig as soon as you can, heading back to your art group, reorganising a coffee morning or book club, getting yourself to bingo or reestablishing your corner in the pub with a newspaper, these are the types of things that can fuel our sense of belonging.
3) Be the instigator
The case of my conversation on the tube does highlight an important point. Still, I’m not going to say this is a model interaction that everyone should follow. As I said, it’s not something I would do ordinarily. But I now feel like I should try and do it more, as should we all.
Even an awkward conversation can crack a smile and a laugh, and that matters. Studies have found that simply smiling at someone can drastically improve their mood for the day.
Not just that, but smiling and laughing with someone means that they're more likely to go and smile and laugh with someone else, too - it's a domino effect.
Both Very Well Mind and Psychology Today say that establishing a sense of belonging does take personal action.
4) Travel and explore
The concept of home is dynamic. Home can be anywhere. Humans have made their homes on every continent, every corner of the planet, and you can too.
Exploration and travel expose us to new places that make us feel like we belong, and that could be anywhere. The warm feeling of returning home can also help us reflect on what we already have, creating a sense of gratitude.
Even if you don’t find your paradise home-away-from-home, travel can help us renew our bonds as citizens of the world.
5) Online communities
Online communities are somewhat of a double-edged sword. Still, so long as we view them as a tool rather than the be-all and end-all, we can harness social media's power to good effect.
There are many online communities dedicated to meeting new people. Meetup.com is an excellent starting point - tons of events are organised there with the exclusive purpose of meeting others and establishing new friends and community.
The thing is, most people understand each other’s problems more than they tend to think. Loneliness, a lacking sense of belonging - these are emotions others can connect to.
With patience, experimentation, action and exploration, you can establish a sense of belonging in many places, including online.
It might just be the simple things. Alternatively, you might need a more significant switch up to transport you away from your everyday life, even if it's just to make returning home that bit sweeter.