The American psychologist Abraham Maslow, known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, listed the sense of social belonging as one of the most fundamental of these needs. In fact, social belonging is apparently so crucial to our wellbeing that he ranked it directly below physiological needs, like food and water, and the need for safety. So what is social belonging? And why is it so important? 

What is a sense of belonging and community?

A sense of belonging and community is the perception that we are emotionally and functionally part of a group of people with whom we share values and norms. A sense of community does not necessarily have to be rooted in experience, but rather relies on the perception that we are part of a group and can access the benefits of belonging to this group at any time. This sense of community often comes from social attachment between individuals and is reinforced through participation in community events.

Having a sense of community invokes feelings of belonging and acceptance from a larger group of individuals. As social creatures, we have evolved to seek this type of validation much like our ancestors, where belonging to a community could mean the difference between life and death. Prior to the current day and age, in which society promotes an individualistic mind-set and provides significant social support from large institutions like governments, people throughout history relied heavily on their communities for survival. By banding together, they were able to pool resources, like food and fuel, which increased survival rates and benefited the community as a whole.

Through thousands of years of evolution, neurological reward systems encouraging social cohesion became deeply embedded in our psychology. Even now, despite the impression that we have evolved past our ancient behavioral patterns, this deep-seated need for social belonging persists within us. This is why Maslow described it as one of the most fundamental needs of humans as it directly impacts our health and wellbeing. 

survey conducted in the USA shows that 57% of the participants are involved in some type of community group or organization, and 11% state that they participate in four or more. In Australia, according to another survey, 83,3% of the participants stated that they were involved in social activities, and 5,9% in civic activities. Low levels of involvement were found in individuals with low income and low education levels, which shows the influence of socioeconomic status, health, and other demographic characteristics. The study concluded that increased levels of participation can reduce social exclusion and improve the overall quality of community life.

What does a sense of community entail?

According to a study, a sense of community can be broken down into four main dimensions: fulfillment of needs, influence, shared emotional connection, and membership.

Fulfillment of needs 

The fulfillment of needs involves the benefits members within a community receive for being part of their community. These benefits can be tangible, such as physical access to resources, or intangible, like emotional support. Successful membership within a community often results in some form of fulfillment for its members. 

Influence 

Influence in a group is the ability for members to have sway over one another. This is important as it maintains social order by acknowledging individuals’ needs and encouraging a sense of communal expectations.

Shared emotional connection

 It comes from a common history and familiarity that manifests as closeness and attachment. This is the glue of a community, bonding people together through shared experience. 

Membership

 As the final dimension of community, it is the sense of belonging that individuals feel while within a community. This is developed through investment of time and resources into the community as well as reciprocal feelings of trust. 

The benefits of a strong community

All of these factors are important for an individual’s health. For example, studies indicate that the strongest predictor of depression among individuals is a weak sense of belonging. 

A strong community has been attributed to individuals experiencing less worry, greater happiness, more resilient coping behaviors and more life satisfaction. This is because having strong social ties leads to an accumulation of resources and support systems known as social capital. It has been demonstrated that higher social capital is related to improved employability and mental health.

Having a strong sense of community is integral to one’s happiness and wellbeing. Studies show that social exclusion, social pain, affects the brain in a similar way than physical pain. A sense of belonging to a larger group is a fundamental human need. Being part of a community is a reciprocal relationship that reinforces itself, as participation increases one’s sense of belonging which, in turn, increases participation. Through this positive feedback loop, individuals are able to fulfill their emotional, physical and psychological needs and lead a healthier and happier life while enriching the same community that enriches them.