Reflections: Let’s Make Belonging Contagious

”Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not on our individual might.” John Cacioppo, TEDxDesMoines

A woman from a US ad agency approached me this week to discuss belonging. It ended up being quite an insightful email conversation. One of the questions was about barriers to belonging.  What are the barriers to belonging? Well, as it turns out our findings were similar. 

The biggest barrier to belonging is not place but people. 

Since I started The Belonging Blog in January and my own search for belonging in Australia, my fourth country, I’ve gone up and down. It’s working. It’s not working. 

I had expected to learn lots of things about Australia. What I didn’t expect was to learn a lot about humanity, loneliness, vulnerability, love and the deep deep issues of belonging itself. 

I thought I would be on a journey alone. But as it turns out I’m not. It’s a slow process but I’m starting to connect with like-minded people through my writing. By reaching out and meeting new people I may actually be making my own belonging. As I make my own belonging, I feel implicated in the country I’m living in and I want to help others. 

The sad thing is that the more I ask people about belonging, the more I understand that I am not in the minority. Many do not feel a sense of belonging. 

This has me worried: is belonging becoming an endangered species?

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What’s the opposite of belonging?

I’d say it’s exclusion. It’s marginalization. It’s to be ostracized. It’s loneliness. 

The problem is that loneliness is on the rise. More people are living alone than ever before in western countries. More people, like me, live overseas and away from the support of extended family or friends made alone the way. More people feel isolated. Even children. A UK charity reported that it’s seen a ”dramatic increase” in the number of phone calls from children saying they feel lonely. 

You could say this doesn’t apply to you. You could say this doesn’t apply to Brisbane or Sydney or Australia. But it does. A study by David Baker at The Australia Institute found that there was an increased proportion of people experiencing loneliness, which points to a growing social problem. Other studies have found that one in three Australians are lonely. 

If we apply research by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, all this loneliness is very dangerous. It’s a warning system that alerts us to social damage, he says in a TEDx talk.  Cacioppo found that living with obesity increases your odds of an early death by 20 percent. However, living with loneliness increases your odds of an early death by 45 percent.

A study done by Cacioppo and scholars at University of California-San Diego and Harvard Medical School also found that lonely people ”infected” the people around them and spread loneliness to their social groups. 

Yes. Loneliness is contagious. Loneliness also decreases the brain’s capacity to feel empathy. 

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The big problem here is that people people who feel lonely are unlikely to say anything because it’s stigmatized. I know myself that when I’m feeling a bit down, I’ll cancel engagements, I’ll stay at home. Yet, this is when I most need to reach out. 

What do we do to combat loneliness? Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier has been talking about the effects of isolation and the importance of belonging for years. Now we have scientific studies proving he was right. 

It’s up to the people who have established social networks to reach out to others less fortunate — to the immigrants, to the elderly, to the homeless, to the marginalized — and introduce them or bring them back into community. Yet, my experience over the past 12 years in Australia has been the opposite. People are ”too busy’’.  People with established social networks have actually told immigrants they don’t need new friends.  

Look at recent tragedies and tell me whether you’re seeing life differently now. 

Take a step. Walk with me. Reach out to someone you don’t know. 

Make belonging contagious. 

 
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