Belonging: the science of creating connection and bridging dividing lines
Two pervasive problems that have received a lot of attention lately are loneliness and polarization. Loneliness is relatively common, especially among young people. Polarization seems to be increasingly occurring in society and even tearing families apart.
Geoffrey L. Cohen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, has written a book relevant to these issues. The title is Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides. In this book he shows that the feeling of belonging is not only a consequence of being successful, but also a condition for success.
The feeling that you don't belong
Feeling that you 'don't belong' can have unpleasant consequences. It often is associated with:
- feeling worse about yourself
- perform less well
- acting impulsively
- viewing others as hostile
- lashing out defensively at others when challenged
When we feel we belong, we feel better, we function better and we are more tolerant and understanding towards others.
Two issues with not belonging
According to Cohen, the feeling of not belonging causes social pain with potentially far-reaching consequences. Two pervasive problems that have received a lot of attention lately are loneliness and polarization.
Loneliness is relatively common, especially among young people. Loneliness, the feeling of being cut off from other people can be psychologically and physically demanding. Cohen likens the feeling of loneliness to a social poison. He argues that chronic loneliness is just as destructive to our bodies and health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
Polarization seems to be increasingly occurring in society and even tearing families apart. Many people have the feeling that they do not belong in society and/or do not belong to people from other than their own political, religious or ethnic group. Supporters of different political parties have a deep-rooted mistrust of each other. In extreme cases, the feeling of not belonging in society can lead to far-reaching radicalism and even terrorism.
Cohen and his colleagues have spent years researching interventions that can help increase people's sense of belonging. They called the interventions that they developed and researched wise interventions. Another term that is often used is social belonging interventions.
Part 1 of his book describes examples of these interventions and ways of structuring the situation (for example in training) in such a way that individuals can feel that they belong. In part 2, Cohen discusses factors that can threaten the sense of belonging, in particular us-them thinking and stereotypes. In part 3 he describes some specific challenges and solutions.
Cohen concludes the book with some key takeaways:
- Fight the Fundamental Attribution Error
- Gain perspectives and cultivate empathy
- Avoid being authoritarian
- Do not believe everything you think
- Why you do it is just as important as what you do
- Think about timing
- Navigate social traffic with your eyes wide open
- Don't just read people, change their situations
- Hold on
- Don't underestimate the potential to connect and the power of connection
Activities to encourage belonging
Furthermore, Cohen mentions the following practices to encourage belonging in our daily lives:
- Ask questions and listen to the answers
- Give your perspective
- Be polite
- Avoid authoritarian language
- Use the non-verbal channel
- Take care of yourself
- Create your situations with care
Example: research social belonging
For those who do not yet have the book but already want to read a little more about the power of social belonging interventions, I refer to this earlier article that I wrote. It is a strong example of how this type of intervention can play an extremely important role in solving the disadvantages of ethnic (and other) minority groups.