Social connectedness is what we all need. Belonging is what we are all responsible for.
One year ago this month, I wrote an article about the importance of social connectedness and my worry that this very basic need would be jeopardized by the pandemic and social distancing requirements. Looking back, I truly had no idea the magnitude of impact that 2020 would have on our collective wellbeing. Not only are we continuing to endure a world-wide pandemic, disparities and inequities continue to harm people and communities of color, and we are facing a mental health and loneliness epidemic like never before.
The need for social connectedness has existed throughout humanity and the rate of loneliness in the United States has been growing steadily for decades prior to the COVID pandemic. The research on the impact of social isolation and loneliness on mental health, physical health, and longevity is clear and mounting. In their pivotal research on the impact of loneliness, Cacioppo and Patrick, described that “to deny an individual social connection has profound psychological implications.” This along with a powerful physiological response that can be as harmful as smoking and obesity to one’s overall health, can lead to increased rates of early mortality, heart disease, depression, anxiety, substance use, domestic violence and suicide.
To drive home the importance of the ways that loneliness can impact us as a society, Harvard University’s report, “Loneliness in America” found that 36% of Americans are experiencing “serious loneliness.” That number is even higher now for young adults and mothers of young children. The problem of loneliness and the decline of social connectedness has many roots in the both our individual and collective experiences.Some of thefactors that influence loneliness can include mental health disorders, substance use, and trauma; the focus on the individual above the collective; the growing divide between political parties; and the “othering” of people different from ourselves.
Knowing the critical role that social connectedness plays in our mental and physical wellbeing, how can we create opportunities for this in our lives and the lives of others? One way of defining social connectedness is the experience of belonging to a social relationship, group, or community. Perhaps belonging is the bridge that gets us there, and belonging is something that we are all responsible for creating.
The Harvard report emphasizes that we should pursue a focus on the common good, that “we have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other,” including, and perhaps especially, to those who are vulnerable.
Belonging involves a feeling of safety, support, trust and being accepted by others for your authentic self. There are things that we can do as individuals to “show up” with our authentic self, to risk putting ourselves out there with vulnerability in relationship to others. We also have a profound yet often under-recognized responsibility to create safe spaces for others to do the same. How often do we ask how someone is doing and make the time to listen to a complete and honest answer? Can we listen with compassion and truly “see” others who are both similar and different from ourselves without defensiveness and counter arguments? This doesn’t mean we have to agree or even completely understand, but when we listen with our whole heart, we work together to create a space for belonging within which social connectedness is achieved.
john powell, director of the Othering and Belonging Institute, emphasizes that belonging means that we “co-create the thing we belong to.” Belonging requires us to acknowledge and respond to each person’s “need for power, agency, love and responsibility” in our co-creation of belonging in society. This happens at the individual relational level and also should be a focus at the organizational, community and societal level. As leaders and people in positions of power, we have a responsibility to let go of our false sense of safety that comes with privilege, show up authentically and with vulnerability, and engage in the “bridging” process to create a sense of belonging for all. To bring this down to a practical level, the next time you organize an event, facilitate a team discussion, or try to solve a problem, first pause and consider how you can carve out space for others to co-create alongside you to create opportunity for belonging. The solutions and experiences will be even richer and impactful as a result!
Consider the impact when you are given cues that you don’t belong, perhaps when someone asks you a question, but doesn’t listen to the answer, when a colleague asks you to join for happy hour, but you don’t drink alcohol, when you are invited to a community event but no one there speaks your language, when you share that you have bipolar disorder, and everyone becomes silent, when you seek care for your diabetes, but none of the doctors look like you, when your medical license is at risk when you acknowledge your need for antidepressant medication, because you “don’t belong” as a physician if you struggle with depression. Without a commitment to creating a sense of belonging for all people, what is the affect on us as individuals and as a society? Imagine a world where we embrace our responsibility to co-create opportunities for belonging, where we feel recognized and accepted by others. Research shows that belonging and social connectedness allow people to be more engaged in their relationships and productive at work, it brings forward diverse voices and perspectives that drive learning and growth, it gives our lives meaning, it makes us healthier and happier and allows us to live longer lives.
While it is critical that we take care of our own mental and emotional wellbeing, we also cannot simply preserve our own position of safety or sense of belonging at the expense of others. And we don’t have to. We can have both. In fact, we must do both if we are going to thrive as humans into the future. Now is the time where this is more possible than ever before. Within our peculiar situation, and because of our recent shared trauma, more and more people are recognizing just how interconnected we are, and the impact that we make in each other’s lives, for better or for worse. Let’s make it for the better.
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had lately to discuss and learn about the cultivation of belonging, through the Jefferson County Health Alliance Community Inclusion Learning Session, the Colorado Health Foundation’s virtual discussion with john powell, “At the Heart of the Matter: Belonging is an Antidote to Racism,” CDPHE’s Healthcare Workers Recovery and Resiliency Advisory Group, and conversations with other family, friends and colleagues who I love and respect.
Here are some resources I’ve found useful recently that you might enjoy as well
Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. W W Norton & Co.