First published in The Hindu, 2 September 2023 

Imagine standing in a circle with a group of people who are throwing a ball. The ball passes to-and-fro as different people throw the ball to each other. However, the ball is never passed to you. How would you feel? As this is just a silly game, you wouldn’t really care, right? 

In his book, Social, psychologist, Mathew Lieberman describes a study in which he and his colleagues had people play a virtual version of this game called Cyberball. Further, the researchers scanned people’s brains while they were deliberately made to feel excluded. And, guess what? The same areas that are involved in the experience of physical pain were activated when participants felt rejected in a virtual game. That’s how potent the barb of social rejection can be, even in a zero-stakes game. In fact, a sense of belonging is one of the primary drivers of human motivation and well-being. What can we do to cultivate it, in ourselves and others?

Lieberman points out that a so-called default network of neural activity is turned on “when we are not doing anything in particular.” The moment we engage in an activity, like a memory or motor or visual discrimination task, this default network switches off. However,this same default network is present when people perform social cognition tasks that involve thinking about yourself, others and your relationships. This default or social cognition network is active even in babies as young as two-weeks old. Lieberman avers that our brains are wired to ponder over our “social world and our place in it.”

Acceptance and security

In an article in the online magazine, Psyche, authors, Janine Dutcher and Amber Quinn argue that the “need to belong” is a fundamental human one. Belonging, according to them, entails feeling wanted, heard and appreciated by a particular social group, whether it’s your extended family, workplace, college or wider community. For our evolutionary ancestors, belonging to a group was essential to survival. In today’s world, though our lives may not be at stake, a sense of belonging is necessary for good emotional and mental health.

In a study involving college students at Carnegie Mellon University, Dutcher and Quinn found that feelings of belonging were inversely related to depressive symptoms. A lower sense of belonging was associated with a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression. In fact, the authors posit that lower levels of belonging may be predictive of mental health issues and may be an at-risk factor that educational institutions may respond to.

Colleges and universities may take a proactive approach and prevent the onset of psychological problems by supporting students with a weak sense of belonging. Just as most institutions have orientation activities to foster bonding among students, these exercises may continue for their entire first-year. Dutcher and Quinn suggest that interventions may be as simple as providing students with a forum to share their concerns about not belonging. Senior students may also narrate how their sense of affiliation grew over time.

If you’re a student who feels that you don’t belong, don’t brush off the feeling. Rather, try to connect with others. If you’re introverted and have qualms about making friends, join a club that melds with your interests, whether it’s music, drama or debating. If you have a niche interest, you may even start an informal club. Research also suggests that engaging in volunteering activities can provide a sense of community. Look for opportunities where you can make a positive difference while also strengthening social ties.

In his book, Together, Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy points out that for the majority of students, achievement ranks above caring about others. However, as individual and collective wellbeing depends on feeling we’re part of a community, perhaps, we should all reach out to others to foster connectedness.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs