The importance of belonging

Writing the story of your experiences may help you cope with stress, researchers say.

Story highlights

  • Social belonging is a fundamental human need
  • Research: One instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, IQ test performance
  • Study enlists subjects as experts to help "others" going through difficulty
You are not alone.
You belong.
And it gets better.
These are a few of a handful of powerful messages that an elegantly designed "belonging intervention" by social psychologist and Stanford assistant professor Gregory Walton conveys to study participants who are going through a difficult period.
In a series of ongoing studies, first published in 2007 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the belonging intervention uses a technique known as "attributional retraining" to help people shift blame for negative events from "It's just me" to "I'm not alone, and there are others going through it."
The goal is to convey to the subjects that when bad things happen, it doesn't mean they don't belong in general.
Why is this important?
"We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life." So began a stunning meditation by Marina Keegan, a 22-year-old Yale graduate who died in a tragic car accident May 26.
What is the opposite of loneliness? Is it belonging?
Because as humans, we need to belong. To one another, to our friends and families, to our culture and country, to our world.
Belonging is primal, fundamental to our sense of happiness and well-being.
Belonging is a psychological lever that has broad consequences, writes Walton. Our interests, motivation, health and happiness are inextricably tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community that may share common interests and aspirations.
Isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person's subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health. Research shows that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, IQ test performance and self-control.
Walton's earlier studies demonstrated that a sense of social belonging can affect motivation and continued persistence, even on impossible tasks. That is, if you don't feel like you belong, you are both less motivated and less likely to hang in there in the face of obstacles.
Even outside a research setting, these are valuable lessons we can all draw from as we navigate life's difficult circumstances. Though Walton's research has involved only students, his work has powerful implications for the workplace and other contexts.
According to Rajita Sinha, the head of Yale's Stress Center, stress itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But stress that is sustained, uncontrollable and overwhelming, in which people can't figure out options to solve their problems, wreaks havoc on us.
Walton's belonging intervention has the potential to downgrade uncontrollable stress by allowing people to put a narrative around their traumatic experiences.
It places those experiences in a box, he says, "with a beginning, a middle and an end. As a consequence, the meaning of the negative experience is constrained, and people understand that when bad things happen, it's not just them, they are not alone, and that it's something that passes."
So what exactly does the belonging intervention involve?
In a broad sense, storytelling.
Walton and his colleagues enlist the study subjects as experts to help "others" who may be similarly situated and going through a difficult time.
The researchers provide subjects with statistics, quotations and stories from upperclassmen about their experiences -- how they struggled at first but eventually got thr