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  • Dan Connors

Do you belong here? Do any of us?

Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides

"A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick." Brene Brown

When you walk into a social gathering, workplace, schoolroom, store, or restaurant, do you ever ask yourself the question- do I belong here? Do I feel comfortable around these people, or do I feel threatened? Do they accept and respect me, or are they judging me and wishing that I'd change or leave? The epidemic of loneliness and disconnection that has swept the planet can be tied to this one concept- belonging. Humans are intensely social creatures, much as we'd like to deny it, and to survive we need safe spaces where we can feel connection with others. The problem comes when we are so hungry to belong to any group, that we settle for a conditional sort of belonging that pits us vs them, creating bad guys, outcasts, and people to hate.

Belonging, a new book by Geoffrey Cohen, takes an in-depth look at the problem of belonging and self-concept, and how it applies to perceived threats in schools, workplaces, health care settings, politics, and relationships. The author is a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, and he backs up his assertions with a dizzying array of studies from the field of social psychology. This is his first book.

Cohen talks about what he calls belonging uncertainty, which can be very damaging, especially for the most vulnerable among us- people of color, the very young, very old, handicapped people, and anybody else who has reason to believe that they don't quite fit in to the ideal stereotype. Studies have shown that these people are less resilient than their more fortunate peers. Small incidents that could happen to anybody are blown out of proportion and pinned on belonging uncertainty, causing loss of self-esteem and starting a negative spiral that leads to dropping out of schools and workplaces.

This leads into one of the main ideas of this book- the fundamental attribution error. This cognitive bias is the source of many of our social ills- racism, sexism, hate, and discrimination. It is the mistaken belief that some people are just fundamentally good and some are fundamentally bad or inferior. Harmful actions by the in-group are ignored or excused, while those by the "bad" guys are fundamental examples of their bad character. Instead, studies have shown that many of our activities are situational, not baked in. Before judging someone for their situation, look at where they are coming from, and you will probably see how their life experiences have shaped them. Much of our stratified society is built around the idea of the this bias, and it gets in the way of a feeling of belonging, especially when people take to heart that they are somehow irredeemable and give up hope of ever fitting in.

The author points to the famous Pygmalion Effect study of elementary school classrooms where teachers were given lists of students who were considered gifted, calling them "bloomers". The students on those lists proceeded to flourish and improve their IQ scores more than their classmates, even though their names were randomly drawn from a class list. The teachers, believing that the students were special, treated them as special, and that made all the difference. This effect has been seen in workplaces and schools all over, and it makes sense. People, especially those who are young and unsure of their place in the world, look to authority figures like teachers and bosses for validation and encouragement as much as they look for food and water. When presented with encouragement and high expectations, most of us deliver better results than when left alone or actively frowned upon.

Can anything be done about this problem? Yes, says Dr. Cohen. He points to exhaustive studies that show how to raise feelings of belonging while improving empathy, connection, and openness. He calls the most effective techniques "situation crafting". Since our behavior is largely shaped by our situations, changing the situations into something more inclusive can produce surprising benefits. One example that he shares is in the classrooms, where a single teacher controls the learning and can choose favorites and outsiders. Rather than put the teacher at the center of everything, there's another alternative called jigsaw groups, where classes are broken up into groups, with each group in charge of a topic, and the topics building on each other like a jigsaw puzzle. When students work cooperatively with each other toward a common goal, belonging soars, but when they sit silently in a classroom with a teacher who plays favorites, it plummets.

Dr. Cohen presents two powerful ideas that can transform almost any situation. The first is wise feedback and criticism, where an authority figure honestly points to weaknesses in a project while assuring the recipient that they believe in them and know they have the ability to improve. This is much more motivating than a nice smiley face written on a paper or a low grade and nasty scowl. The second idea is values affirmation, where before entering into a situation, the person is encouraged to think about or write about their core values. Tapping into this deep well of energy has shown to transform performances. (Sample of these value activities for all ages can be found on his website- shown here.

Belonging is an inspiring, science-driven book that's perfect for our age of disconnection and judgement. We are all so much more alike than different, it's such a shame that we can't see that in each other. Dr. Cohen finishes the book with in-depth looks at how belonging can be improved in specific areas like:

- Schools. Students must feel like they belong in their school and are respected and encouraged. Wise interventions, especially for the most vulnerable, can help improve empathy, community, and performance. The teen years especially can be a challenge to identity, and strong connections, friendly role models, and a safe place to learn are vital.

- Workplaces. Only a third of employees are truly engaged by their jobs according to studies, and much of that is because they don't feel like their employer cares about them. Even before being hired, studies have shown that implicit biases weed out good candidates who don't fit preconceived notions. Managers somehow have to make their employees feel important and appreciated by giving wise feedback, acknowledgment, and welcoming work conditions.

- Health Care. Hospitals and doctors offices can be sterile, unpleasant places. Many health problems can be traced to mental and emotional health, and most will heal much better with support, especially from support groups of other people who are going through or have experienced the same health issues. There's something called CTRA, (conserved transcriptional response to adversity), that comes from chronic stress and the feeling of being threatened. CTRA produces increased inflammation and decreased antiviral activity, both of which contribute to poorer and poorer health outcomes. Connection and support counteract that impulse and is the best hope of the chronically ill.

- Police. Our law enforcement system is supposed to protect us. But what happens when it's seen as biased and untrustworthy? Citizens stop cooperating and police officers are seen as the enemy, when in reality they are there to keep the peace, which most of us want. Cohen points to innovative solutions tried out in places like Australia and Camden, NJ where officers were encouraged to get out of their cars and interact with the community. By crafting the situation of routine encounters, both officers and citizens can be made to feel that the system is helpful and legitimate, and that they all belong to the same community.

- Politics. Ironically, many of us find our main source of belonging by choosing a side in the political debates. Those who are like us are the good guys and those who oppose us are evil. But as we've seen, this increases hatred, prejudice, us vs them thinking, and zero sum strategies. Luckily there are strategies out there that can counteract the polarization and help people find each other again. These include asking open-ended questions, giving your own honest perspective and sharing your experiences, and affirming the other with respect. This is harder than the simple shortcut of picking a side, but if enough of the right thought leaders did it, I think it could work.

This book says that it presents the science of creating connections and bridging divides, and it certainly does deliver, especially with the science. We all have a need to belong, and we are also quick to judge others based on their race, creed, color or other attribute that codes them as "other". We are all "others". The situation that we all live in can be cruel and competitive, which rarely brings out the best in us. Crafting the situations to improve connection makes more sense than giving up on others because we see them as fundamentally flawed.

This book presents the problem well, and even better it presents solutions that have worked in the real world. I hope that more and more of those in positions of power and influence will realize the power of inclusion and community

vastly outweighs the powers of us vs them.

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