The Importance of Belonging (April 2012)
We all value membership in groups. Most of us can recall middle school when we felt just that, in the middle….when we thought of ourselves neither as children nor adults; when we felt an oceanic feeling of being in-between. Recent research has shown that belonging to social groups is an important predictor of mental and physical health, even as important as diet and exercise. There is increasing evidence that the health risk of social isolation is comparable to the risks of smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. For example, in an article published in 2008 in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation by Holmes, et al., it was found that life satisfaction after a stroke was significantly higher for people who belonged in social groups before their stroke.
Many years ago I read an article written by Oliver Sachs of Columbia University. In his remarkable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (1998), Sachs concluded that when determining a patients quality of life we should not look so much at the severity of the disorder but rather the person’s ability to maintain a coherent sense of self. And so it seems from numerous psychological studies, that group life and a sense of social identity have a profound influence on our abilities to maintain a coherent sense of self as well as on our general health and well-being. We understand ourselves fundamentally as humans who are social animals who live and have evolved to live in groups. Human beings who live in groups and understand ourselves within a group, see that membership in a group as being an indispensable part of who we are and an important part of our leading fulfilling and satisfying lives.
Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone (2000), wrote that if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year and a half, by 50%. The 800 million users of Facebook clearly understand that social networks help us feel connected. We now know from research that participation in group life is actually an antidote to physical and mental health problems. All too often TV leads us down a pharmaceutical path to deal with problems. Object relations theorists have firmly implanted in my belief system that participating in activities that lead to feelings of belonging, of feeling like we are members in a group, is potentially a more effective way, and likely more enjoyable way, of inoculating oneself from problems rather than treating them after they develop. And if you struggle to easily establish membership in groups, seek out professional help for help in identifying what factors interfere with that process.