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In Search of Belonging and Human Connection

Why do we long for connection by being a part of a community?

Why do we long for connection by being a part of a community? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the innate human need to belong. Having a strong sense of identity is essential to our self-esteem and self-worth. We crave experiences that give us a sense of purpose, yet we often sacrifice our interests in favor of a group we want to join.

Why do we try to fit in so early on in life?

Why do we feel compelled to assimilate with peer groups that aren’t the right fit? 

And most importantly, is there more out there for us?

Are these questions you ponder, too? 

The Origins of Connection and our Longing to Belong

An article published by the NIH, “The Origins of Belongingdiscusses how our desire to belong takes hold in our early childhood. During the initial stages of our development, we form long-lasting bonds with group members that factor into our identity:

“Our reliance on our group members has exerted a profound influence over our motivation: successful group functioning requires that we are motivated to interact, and engage with those around us. In other words, we need to belong.”

When children are deprived of a sense of belonging, it has negative consequences on their well-being.

This research revealed that my focus on social motivation and need to feel belonging within a group of my peers at a young age had a biological basis. This innate drive led me to succumb to social pressures and model my behavior after my peers.

Think back to your earliest childhood memories of trying to fit in. Have you stayed in those same groups, or joined new ones as you’ve evolved and matured? Maybe, you’ve outgrown where you feel comfortable. Like a hermit crab in search of its new shell, you might still be searching for a place to call home that fits who you are today. 

Many of my vividest memories from growing up centered around trying to fit in with the neighborhood crew. I always felt like I needed to be the best to be accepted, from backyard football to Xbox Halo tournaments. Even when I was, I never really felt like my true self.I sacrificed my identity just to fit in. I wanted nothing more than to feel accepted, but even when I was, I didn’t feel like me.

The concept of belonging usually makes me think of a few specific types of organizations:

  • Brands
  • Colleges
  • Religions
  • Pro sports teams’ fandoms

I often see adults define their sense of self around belonging to groups like these. Belonging also evokes more intimate connotations, like personal relationships. Ultimately, it comes downs to people congregating around shared passions and belief systems.

Connection With Others Comes From Belonging Within

What makes us invest so much effort into things outside our control or bigger than ourselves, even when that means giving people the power to truly hurt us?

No matter how much time you invest in them, you can never have full control over any of these aspects of your life. If your favorite sports team moves cities, your church is destroyed, you lose faith in your religion, or your romantic relationship crumbles, what are you left with?

Experiencing many of these events myself taught me some critical lessons. Most importantly, I’ve come to fully grasp the value of persistence. This has been essential to learning how to start standing out from the crowd.

I’m 26, after all. Up until now, I’ve been pushing the limits of my independence by giving myself permission to invest in myself. What if instead of just sports teams, I focused more on self-study and solo activities like playing the piano?

This led me to the pivotal question: what if I’d spent less time caring about fitting in as a kid?

Questioning everything about yourself and the beliefs you’ve held since a young age is a scary head space to be in. I participated in many group activities as a kid, but lately I’ve started investing in myself. Trying out new ideas and finding the courage to stand out have made me a better leader, I think.

As my good friend Asmir puts it, 

“I’ve begun to realize I’m the most comfortable with my “self conscious” self. I think that’s honestly becoming a trend in society. People are so scared to admit that they feel a certain way or believe something, or do things that may be really cool because of the fear of being cancelled or unaccepted. Just because the way I look, act, think, and speak differently than someone else doesn’t mean that I should hide who I am. And yet, I’m scared to approach new people and say hi. That’s something I’m trying to work on right now.”


Exploring these topics of identity and belonging on a deeper level have led me to discover something surprising. It’s my theory that a true sense of belonging comes not from fitting into a pre-existing group, but by standing out and carving out our own path. Honoring our own free will is the only way we can uncover who we truly are.

The Science of Belonging

Our longing to belong is a universal need. In a defining breakthrough that’s been prevalent to this day, Abraham Maslow theorized a hierarchy of human needs.

This pyramid of self-actualization, namely “the full realization of one’s potential and true self,” is built upon four core tenants:

  • Immediate Psychological Needs
  • Safety
  • Love (affection, belonging)
  • Esteem

Maslow’s theory presumes that humans share a universal set of motives, arranged in a hierarchy based on how critical they are to our survival and well-being. 

Arguably the most enduring aspect of Maslow’s theory is his idea of organizing fundamental motives into a hierarchy:

“If a person is starving, for example, the desire to obtain food and be safe will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes [… and] an individual’s priorities shifted from lower to higher in the hierarchy as the person matured.”

In other words, one we feel safe and all of our life-sustaining needs are met, we can begin to focus on the social dimension. Interpersonal interactions, in turn, fade in importance as we mature into an adult, motivated to cultivate and uncover our true passions, strengths, and goals.

Peer pressure shapes our lives most profoundly in our youth, but it can still be a powerful force in our adult lives that’s hard to resist. Self-actualization demands strength: a strong sense of identity, strength of will, and a powerful drive to stay true to ourselves. What are we up against in this struggle?

Losing Ourselves Through the Process of Serving an Image

Standing out will always serve me better than fitting in. I’ve learned that the hard way, and it goes against a lot of popular research on how everyone from students in a classroom to employees in an office space perform better in social and academic situations when they’re part of a group. All of our experiences, even within a group setting, can drastically alter our personal worldview. How do we strive to perceive the world in a beneficial way?

Jacqueline Schall’s article, Fitting in’ in high school:  How Adolescent Belonging is Influenced by locus of control beliefs, argues “social interactions in the high school context are the source material for more enduring perceptions of fitting in for adolescents […] and perceptions of belonging relate to school engagement and academic outcomes.”

Can how well we fit in socially really determine our tangible success? The study contends “adolescents’ locus of control beliefs differed across levels of perceived belonging. Results provide evidence for both the need to account for individual differences in conceptualising adolescent belonging in school and the consideration of teaching practice and task structure when designing school-based interventions.”

Are we doing our kids and adolescents a disservice by creating academic and social hierarchies for them to fit into before they know who they really are? I emphatically agree with the solution this thesis proposes. Let’s redefine what it means to belong, and to be accepted, by celebrating the individual differences that make us unique. 

Giving young adults a chance to understand their interest outside the context of peer pressure and groupthink is integral to forming a healthy conception of what they stand for as an individual. 

I think we should encourage young people to examine why they’re drawn to certain people, ideas, and things. Is it just because everyone else is? Assimilating with a group that’s not the right match doesn’t serve anyone well in the long run.

High schools have  a lot to gain from adding an introductory course on the study of one’s self to the curriculum. Were this practice more encouraged, perhaps kids would feel empowered to branch out more intentionally based on who they know they are inside and their areas of interest. Standing out as your own unique self should be celebrated, because it’s the key to fitting in with the right people for you.

Apple Wasn’t Built on Succumbing to the Status Quo

Steve Jobs gave one of the most compelling commencement speeches in history at Stanford University on his rationale behind dropping out of college, and his story speaks volumes to challenge the notion that success in any form demands fitting in with those around you.

“So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example: Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country.

Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

Steve Jobs took the time instead to discover what he truly cared about. Staying true to himself and his interests wasn’t always easy. He didn’t fit the mold of what everyone else was doing, but liberatingly, he didn’t care. As he embarked upon a divergent path, he found that uncovering his true self would later enable him to build one of the most successful companies in the world.

My Challenge for You

Why should we continue trying to conform? Let’s stop forcing ourselves into areas we don’t align with, or ones that are too small to contain our limitless ideas.

We only have one life to live, and this is the last thing anyone wants engraved on their tombstone: “I fit into the status quo, I followed the beaten path, and spent time with people who I didn’t care about, and I chose a life that didn’t have meaning because I was too scared to be perceived as different.”

Instead, we should invest in ourselves. Spend more time on people that truly care about us instead of letting people who bring us down reside in our heads rent-free.

For Young Professionals
Bryan Wish

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