The Lancet recently published an article by John T Cacioppo which began, “Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centred, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely…”[i]
This condition; loneliness, is one that is rising dramatically in our society. It seems paradoxical that we are more socially connected than at any other time in history and yet feelings of isolation and loneliness are increasing. When we press into this phenomenon, it is easy to assume that it is primarily the complaint of the 18% of the British population who are over 65 years old, when instead, ‘younger adults aged 16 to 24 years reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups.’[ii]
It is perhaps the legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams who summed up the challenge of the decade when he wrote, “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.”[iii] For my co-author Psychiatrist Dr Rob Waller and myself, it was this ‘feeling alone’ element that piquet our desire to investigate further. We both have had significant exposure to the issues of loneliness in the contexts of our work, Rob within the world of psychiatry and my own from the parish. It was evident to us both that the resolution to loneliness wasn’t simply getting people into the same room.
Baumeister and Leary’s 1995 study, proposes the simplest underlying motivation behind so much of our human behaviour: The need to belong argues, “That human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain a minimum quality of lasting positive and significant interpersonal relationships.”[iv] Belongingness Theory made so much sense of what we were seeing all around us; a high volume of social connection but a low volume of social relationship. People don’t just want to be with other people they want to belong with them.
Of course, we live a hugely complex society, one that is now experienced both digitally and physically. The job of estimating the level to which we belong has become mind bendingly difficult. It is no wonder that our football terraces are full to bursting; what relief people must feel when you slip on a red or blue t-shirt and suddenly enjoy the simplicity of being part of something without the need for further qualification. This is challenge of belonging; that whist we need it and seek it, we also talk ourselves out of it.
The desire to belong ironically creates an inverse concern; that we don’t. Social media, certainly for the younger generations, has become both a potential source of belonging and a quagmire of shame and humiliation. It is within this space that so many young people have their sense of un-belonging reaffirmed, either explicitly through online bullying or shaming, or more commonly implicitly, through the work of comparison making.
We estimate the quality of our belonging through a highly subjective reading of social clues and self-perceptions. This ‘Sociometer’[v] acts something like a thermometer, measuring the level to which we belong. Ironically, because we naturally carry a bias towards the negative and tend to estimate against ourselves, it rarely reflects the true value of our relationships. The resulting anxiety also tends to provoke social withdrawal and consequential isolation and loneliness.
It is not hard to see how the cycle of un-belonging, shame and social isolation is impacting our society and how it can propagate and reinforce peoples experience of loneliness. At the same time we believe that this is a cycle that can and must be broken, not just for the sake of our own wellbeing but for the sake of a unified and compassionate society.
Rob and I explore what we call, ‘The Two Tracks of Belonging’ within the book: ‘That I belong to God and that I belong in community’. “We believe that the spiritual track tells us the ‘why’ that explains the psychological track’s ‘how’. These two tracks reinforce each other, and when they do, something very profound occurs in our leadership. The power of our supernatural security in Christ supercharges the courage we have to lead, not to appease.”[vi]
Belongingness is to say, ‘I am at home’ in whichever environment I might find myself. From that position of security it is possible to lead with both confidence and love. As we approach Easter, I was reflecting again on the unique sense of belonging that Jesus carried. As the societal, political and religious tensions began to rise around him, he retained unique confidence in his belonging to God and could exercise a deep love for the poorest and most marginalised in society.
Typically, we offer our best hospitality when we invite our neighbour into our home; the places that best express our own sense of belonging. Yet if vast swathes of our society don’t believe that they belong, how can they offer hospitality to others? Belongingness is a glue that our society desperately needs if we are to overcome our isolation, division and inequality. It is God’s gift to us; to know that we uniquely belong to him and within the world that he created and it’s our most potent weapon in the fight against loneliness.
Read more about Belonging HERE
(This article was originally published in The Church of England Newspaper)
[vi] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Power-Belonging-Discovering-Confidence-Vulnerability/dp/0830775935 p190