An epidemic of loneliness is upon us. There are many factors to blame — social media, our increasingly transient culture, polarized politics, etc. — but they all boil down to one thing: a lack of belonging.
Somehow, in a society where we’ve developed technology that can order piping hot saag paneer in minutes, we’ve overlooked one of the most fundamental human needs: to belong.
It’s possible to be hyper-connected to other people, yet profoundly lonely. So how can we discover where we belong?
We need each other to survive
Achieving a sense of belonging starts with acknowledgment. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it doesn’t matter — we are hardwired as social creatures, and no one is above this innate need to be seen. Ultimately, we must belong to something greater than ourselves in order to gain a sense of purpose and meaning.
This is a need that has emerged for us in a new way in recent decades. For most of human history, community was critical for our physical survival in very tangible ways. You actually relied on your neighbor if there was a fire or a disaster, and they relied on you if a thief came in the night and stole their one milk cow. Neighbors and friends had a tangible and direct impact on each other’s lives — their stories were woven together.
Now, with technological advancements, our physical survival is less immediately at risk, and relationships have evolved accordingly. Let’s be real: firefighters are much better at saving structures than friends with buckets. But there has been a hidden cost to these advancements: we’ve underestimated how much we need people on a psychological level.
“I am a psychologist in private practice and frequently find myself dealing with the battle of loneliness and feeling that one does not belong,” said Dr. Noël Hunter, Psy.D., author of Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services. “It’s an epidemic in our current, hyper-individualistic, consumerist society. As a social species, at our most fundamental level, we need to feel a part of a tribe or community.”
Even on a purely biological level, this is a real threat. “Struggling to belong can be associated with fight/flight responses, chronic anxiety, self-hatred, lack of meaning or purpose in life, and chronic fears of death,” Hunter explains. This, in turn, this results in a vicious cycle, where sadness, fear, and anger leads to continued alienation and loneliness.
No one — not even the most highly-educated, self-proclaimed socialite — is above this threat. But the first step is to realize that we need people — we need deep connections with others. And yes, we’re absolutely worthy of them.
Without them, it’s a proven fact that life will feel utterly meaningless.
Start by looking outside of yourself
Once upon a time many centuries ago, belonging was effortless. We were just born into a family unit, which was often connected to a particular trade or purpose, and usually established within a community. Today, though, even if you’re born into this increasingly rare scenario, achieving a sense of belonging is far more complicated. Our identities have much more complex and shifting dynamics now. There’s so much distraction, so much choice — and ironically, so much fear of making a mistake with a choice.
As technology supersedes community, achieving a sense of belonging often requires intentionality and vulnerability.
This can be scary for any one of us not used to exposing our real, quirky, flawed selves, but the real key to achieving a sense of belonging is to think about what brings you to life, and then finding ways to live with that identity in an intentional and visible way. “Form(ing) your own group based around a particular interest… can be fruitful for many,” Hunter shares.
To discover your interests, look inside. Like to eat? Consider creating a foodie club. Like to sing? Join a choir. Love your dog? Sign it up for competitions — and meet other dog-lovers. Are you into deep, philosophical discussions? Go to a philosophy seminar. Love clothes? Work part-time at your favorite boutique. Even if you’re super cheap and hate spending money, you’re in luck! Learn what a saving circle is.
Essentially, find something that you’re internally geeking out about — and find ways to share this interest with people around you. Push back your fear of criticism and allow yourself to gather with like-minded people. As you add value to their lives, they’ll add value to yours.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix to loneliness — but taking the steps toward finding that place where you belong is worth it. It all starts with acknowledging to yourself that you need others. When you reach out to connect, you’ll find that they need you, too.