What is Belonging — And Why Does it Matter in Today’s Divided, Lonely World?

Illustration of people putting together puzzle pieces

It’s not a buzzword, a checkbox or a synonym for diversity and inclusion. Psychologists and experts explain what belonging is, how it matters to you and why it’s more important than ever.

Stop reading this article and ask the next person you see to share a time they felt they didn’t belong. Maybe it was searching for a seat in the middle school cafeteria or after moving to a new city. It could have been a major life event or a run-of-the-mill everyday encounter.

Whenever it was, chances are they had an answer because nearly every human has felt like they don’t belong at one point in their lives. In fact, today, loneliness, which arises from a human’s need to belong, is so pervasive it’s considered an epidemic. In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., called it an “urgent public health issue” and noted it and isolation present “profound threats to our health and well-being” in his 82-page report, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.” And it’s not just an issue in the United States. A 2023 survey taken across 142 countries reports that 24% of people age 15 and older said they feel “very or fairly lonely.”

“What happens, from a psychological perspective, if you feel like you don’t belong? You use your cognitive resources worrying about that lack of belonging,” says Lindsey Caola, visiting assistant professor in the psychology department at Holy Cross. “That detracts from our ability to focus on the task at hand, which might be engaging in class or being present in a relationship or conversation with peers. In the workplace, if we don’t feel accepted by our colleagues, we might not feel as motivated at work. We might not be as productive. Because we’re human, we have limited cognitive capacity.”

In short: Our brains cannot function optimally when we don’t feel a sense of belonging. Not only that, Caola says, research has found that the brain processes the pain of loneliness in a similar way that it does physical pain.

Seated woman in white blazer rests her elbows on a table
Lindsey Caola, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Holy Cross, says the absence of a sense of belonging affects a person’s ability to focus.

And, today, more and more people are experiencing that pain. In March 2023, the American Immigration Council released a report called “The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America.” It found that “a majority of Americans report non-belonging, a cumulative term that includes people who are unsure or ambiguous about whether they belong and those experiencing exclusion.”

The report surveyed Americans about belonging in several areas: 64% reported non-belonging in the workplace, 74% reported non-belonging in their local community and 68% reported non-belonging in the nation.

“What we know about how our brain works, and from an evolutionary standpoint, is that we’re wired for connection. All of us, even the biggest introverts in the world, we’re wired for connection and we heal in connection,” explains Laurie Craigen ’99, professor of mental health counseling and behavioral medicine at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

Woman wearing glasses looks off in the distance
Laurie Craigen ’99, professor of mental health counseling and behavioral medicine at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine: “Belonging is not only being invited to the table, but feeling like you have a valued seat at the table.”

Connection leads to belonging. But belonging is not simply “fitting in.” It’s not a buzzword or a checkbox to fulfill. And it’s not an umbrella term for diversity and inclusion.

Belonging is a core psychological need among all humans.

“Inclusion is the outcome of belonging,” Craigen says. “Belonging is the personal experience where I feel valued and connected and able to be my full self.”

Why belonging matters

In her more than two decades working in diversity and inclusion and leadership development in the corporate world, Francine Rosado-Cruz ’94 saw the connection between belonging and success.

During her eight years working at Microsoft, her team in learning and development applied neuroscience research to create a new culture of belonging at the company during a CEO transition. The culture shift hinged on psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s theory of growth mindset, which asserts that talent and skills are not innate but instead can be learned through experimentation and failure. When it came to cultivating inclusive teams, Rosado-Cruz’s team employed the NeuroLeadership Institute’s SCARF model, which represents the five domains of human social experience: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Woman stands with her hands in her pockets.
Francine Rosado-Cruz ’94, inclusive workplace expert, sees the connection between belonging and success in the corporate world. (Photo by Joshua Kwassman)

“Each person has something that’s really important to them, and you could equate that to what their values are. And if someone feels that one of their five domains is violated, they feel excluded,” Rosado-Cruz says. “And then the brain triggers the fight or flight response, it’s a very biological response. And no one does their best in terms of performance when they’re feeling that way. Which is why belonging is critical to the success of a business.”

There is a cost when people don’t feel like they belong, she adds. Ensuring employees have the chance to succeed is essential to employee retention. Any time a person leaves a job, there is a cost to the employer, in terms of loss of knowledge and the time and money it takes to find and train a replacement. Studies range in terms of the financial impact, which can equate to anywhere from six to nine months of that position’s salary.

Bearded man leans agains a wall
As a college and career counselor, Brandon Brito ’20 helps his high school students navigate feelings of imposter syndrome.

Rosado-Cruz has a policy of starting meetings with an exercise in which the participants share how they are feeling and something that is distracting them. She provides each employee with a feelings wheel, so there is a shared vocabulary. And whether the employees shared something surface-level, like a TV show binge that was distracting them, or something more personal, like an ongoing challenge, it was a chance to develop connections that fostered belonging.

“It’s an opportunity for everyone’s voice to be in the room at the beginning of the meeting,” Rosado-Cruz says. “Everyone’s been in meetings where it is, like, ‘Oh, do I say something? I don’t want to be the first one.’ But with this, everyone’s already said something and it’s created an environment and team culture where you matter and what you say matters.”

What happens when people don’t feel like they belong?

If belonging leads to productivity and success, then a lack of belonging leads to a host of problems.

Craigen, who works with individual therapy clients in addition to being a member of the faculty at BU, has seen an increase in burnout, anxiety and depression among her patients.

A Guide to Belonging
How our experts cultivate belonging:
  • Caola motivates her students through self-determination theory, which posits that students need to feel autonomy, relatedness and competence to succeed. In each of her classes, she encourages students to pick their own topics for projects and always includes a few lectures per semester where students choose the topic.
  • Craigen works with her therapy clients to create goals that help them form connections. For isolated remote workers, it might be going to a local coffee shop. For others, it could be joining an exercise class or attending a church service.
  • Rosado-Cruz teaches that honest, constructive feedback is necessary for people to feel like they belong in the workplace. In the absence of consistent feedback, people feel like they are floundering, which can lead to mistakes. She advises providing feedback in the growth mindset model that emphasizes learning from experiences to make different decisions in the future.
  • Brito educates his high school students about perception versus reality on social media, to conquer feelings of isolation or FOMO: the fear of missing out.

“Many of us have missed this step of being part of something bigger, where I can be my authentic self, where I can join a conversation and not have a threat of disconnection,” she says. “When people don’t feel that psychological safety, where they can be their authentic selves and not be harmed for it, I’m seeing a lot of issues with people’s mental health.”

The pandemic also made things worse in this area, Craigen adds.

“COVID rerouted connection for a lot of us. We thought, well, we can do X, Y, Z remotely and change this meeting to an email and be just as productive. And I think that’s false. Productivity decreases when there’s not a great sense of belonging,” she says. Imposter syndrome — self-doubt of intellect, skills or accomplishments — is another problem for those who don’t feel like they belong.

Brandon Brito ’20 has seen that in the students he works with in school settings. He has worked at Meadowbrook School of Weston, a private pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school, as the assistant director of diversity, equity and inclusion, and currently serves as associate director of college and career counseling at Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston.

One of Brito’s Excel Academy students once told him she wanted to take Harvard off her college application list because she felt like she wasn’t good enough to attend, despite a host of qualifications that included a 4.8 GPA and multiple AP credits.

“She had made up her mind that she is not equipped for that because she is not coming from an elite private high school with three baseball fields and unlimited resources. And she’s not wrong to a certain extent, these disparities do exist and are exacerbated by social media,” says Brito, who ultimately convinced the student to submit her Harvard application.

To help his students, he spends time with them one-on-one: “recalibrating or grounding students in what they’re capable of, unpacking a lot of their fears and insecurities and imposter syndrome, which are really real feelings.”

Working through those types of feelings can be uncomfortable, but vulnerability is essential to belonging, Craigen says.

“Belonging doesn’t always mean comfortable. It can be uncomfortable to be completely vulnerable, showing all sides of myself and not tucking in any aspects,” she says. “Belonging is not only being invited to the table, but feeling like you have a valued seat at the table.”