You Are Not Alone

When we actively work to connect and engage with others, we create a sense of belonging for everyone. That is the seed of meaning, peace, and resilience. And you know what? It just makes life more fun.
01/24/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

At the top of the page, in Arial 18-point pink letters, it says:

Form For Art Club
Meets Saturday and Sunday

On the lines below are four cramped little signatures from the club's newest members -- the neighborhood girls. My daughter's penmanship is flowy, sloppy. Another wrote her name with a backward e, another nearly illegible from the 7-year-old scribe, followed by the precise penmanship of the older girl who lives down the block.

My daughter started this club last weekend. Everyone wanted to join. And, at the end of the day when I tucked her in with her stuffed baby kitty and rainbow cheetah, she was reveling in her success.

"I was just so happy the club succeeded," she said. "I didn't know. I thought maybe no one would want to join, but they all wanted to belong."

The Need to Be Part

Of course they did. We all do. Whether we are six or 60, we all just want to be a part of something. To be included. To be valued and loved. That need to belong is third on Maslow's famed list of needs, and recent research shows that when we feel like we belong our lives have greater meaning and less stress. We are more motivated and resilient and more likely to persist despite adversity.

When we feel as though we belong we are healthier, happier, more powerful.

New research led by Nathaniel Lambert at Brigham Young University shows that when people feel like they fit in with others in a group, their lives have greater meaning -- which is a good thing, since meaning promotes emotional and physical well-being. People who feel excluded report finding less meaning in life. That can lead to depression.

To combat this feeling of social isolation, Stanford University social psychologist Gregory Walton tested what he calls a "social belonging intervention." It's been shown in several different studies to boost achievement and ease stress.

For this type of intervention, Walton encourages people who are enduring difficult life events to recognize that they are not alone but, part of this greater collective where others too are facing challenges.

As part of the intervention, Walton had study participants create a narrative around negative events -- a story with a beginning, middle and end -- which helped them to see that the tough times, while universal, do pass.

Finding Your Place

The trick is to build relationships with your family, friends and groups that allow you to be who you are, as you are, one that shares your interests and values. Find the people that you fit in with and those you feel good around. Then, help others to feel the same by creating a place where everyone is valued for their unique individualism while still belonging to the whole.

1. Encourage involvement. Everybody has a unique ability or talent or expertise -- invite them to share it. When people join a group or a neighborhood or a family, let them help. Rely on them. Let them bring something to Thanksgiving dinner. When you are ill, ask them to mow the lawn, or pick up the kid or bring a meal. Allow others to help out, get involved, feel a part. This is team building at its best.

2. Listen and validate. You don't have to agree with everything your husband says, or the ideas of the committee member on the PTC or the head of the church group, but you can allow them to be heard. Listening is a way of including.

3. Allow for mistakes. We're all going to blow it. In fact, our imperfections are the one thing that tie us all together. Show your kids, friends and group members that nobody is cast out for an inadvertent mistake or screw up. Sure they need to own them, be accountable and fix them, but nobody needs to be ridiculed or disowned because they didn't do it right. If you create an environment where mistakes are forgiven, you create a sense of safety and belonging for every member. More than that, you foster creativity, innovation and growth.

4. Respect, accept, include. Don't disparage or demean, interrupt or act with contempt. Don't joke at another's expense. Instead, solicit the opinions of the others whom you care about, accept the differences, and involve them in decisions and projects.

5. Reach out. There are so many people who are left out -- excluded by illness, or finances or other life circumstances that make it hard for them to get involved. Reach out to them. Practice kindness. We all have our struggles, but by acting with empathy we can make sure that no one feels alone. Kindness is also a way to boost your own sense of belonging.

When we actively work to connect and engage with others, we create a sense of belonging for everyone. That is the seed of meaning, peace, and resilience. And you know what? It just makes life more fun.