The need to belong - to something.

“Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Aristotle

Not heaps has changed since Aristotle was around. Just as us humans have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.

The desire to be in a loving relationship, to fit in at school, to not be picked last for sporting teams, to join a mother’s group or men’s shed, to avoid rejection and loss, to see your friends do well and be cared for, to share good news with your family, to cheer on your NRL team, and to check in on Facebook—these things motivate an incredibly impressive array of our thoughts, actions, and feelings.

Abraham Maslow suggested that the need to belong was a major source of human motivation. In his hierarchy of human needs, the believed that belongingness was one of the major five - along with physiological needs, safety, self-esteem, and self-actualization. After we meet the needs of physiological and safety, we are then motivated towards the need to belong and to be loved. According to Maslow, if the first two needs are not met, then an individual cannot completely love someone else.

Other theories have also focused on the need to belong as a fundamental psychological motivation. According to Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, all human beings need a certain minimum quantity of regular, satisfying social interactions. Inability to meet this need can results in loneliness, mental distress, and a strong desire to form new relationships.

Baumeister and Leary argue that much of what human beings do is done in the service of belongingness. They argue that many of the human needs that have been documented, such as the needs for power, intimacy, approval, achievement and affiliation, are all driven by the need to belong. Human culture is compelled and conditioned by pressure to belong and this need to belong and form attachments is universal among us humans.

And this need to belong has its roots in evolution. In order for our ancestors to reproduce and survive it was essential that they establish social bonds. From an evolutionary selection perspective we now possess internal mechanisms that direct us into lasting relationships and social bonds.

One of the great mysteries of evolutionary science is how and why the human brain got to be so large. Brain size generally increases with body size across the animal kingdom. Elephants have huge brains while mice have tiny ones. But humans are the great exception to this rule. Given the size of our bodies, our brains should be much smaller—but they are by far the largest in the animal kingdom relative to our body size. The question is why.

Scientists have debated this question for a long time, but the research of anthropologist Robin Dunbar is fairly conclusive on this point. Dunbar has found that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size—specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer—is the size of its social group. It is entirely possible that we have big brains in order to socialise! Scientists think the first hominids with brains as large as ours appeared about 600,000-700,000 years ago in Africa. Known as Homo heidelbergensis, they are believed to be the ancestors of Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. Revealingly, they appear to be the first hominids to have had division of labour (they worked together to hunt), central campsites, and they may have been the first to bury their dead.

One of the most exciting findings to emerge from neuroscience in recent years underlines the brain’s inherently social nature. When neuroscientists monitor what’s going on in someone’s brain, they are typically interested in what happens in it when people are involved in an active task, like doing a math problem or reaching for a ball. But neuroscientists have looked more closely at what the brain does during non-active moments, when we’re chilling out and the brain is at rest. Every time we are not engaged in an active task—like when we take a break between two math problems—the brain falls into a neural configuration called the “default network.” When you have down time, even if it’s just for a second, this brain system comes on automatically.

What’s remarkable about the default network, according to social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, is that it looks almost identical to another brain configuration—the one used for social thinking or “making sense of other people and ourselves.” He writes: “The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals.” Whenever it has a free moment, the human brain has an automatic reflex to go social. Why would the brain, which forms only 2 percent of our body weight but consumes 20 percent of its energy, use its limited resources on social thinking, rather than conserving its energy by relaxing?”

Evolution only makes bets if there are payoffs—and when it comes to being social, there are many benefits. Having strong social bonds is as good for you as quitting smoking. Connecting with other people, even in the most basic ways, also makes you happier—especially when you know they need your help. One study of adults found that the brain’s reward centre, which turns on when people feel pleasure, was more active when people gave $10 to charity than when they received $10.

On the other side though, our motivation for belongingness can get us into pickles. When we experience interpersonal strife we often contemplate walking away rather than sticking it out, however, finding a relationship with similar depth is not an easy task. If we always end every relationship thinking that we can swap-out the old for a more positive one, we would find ourselves in a constant state of seeking and never experiencing and this would conflict with our fundamental need to belong.

This explains why so many of us are apt to hold on to destructive relationships. The fact that some people display an unwillingness to leave an abusive partner conveys the strength and power of our need to belong. Any threat to social attachments can have the capacity to lead to anxiety, depression, jealousy and loneliness. When we feel anxious at the thought of losing an important relationship, we may feel depressed when the connection ends and then feel lonely because we no longer have the important relationship. One such example of this is the death of a loved one. Some researchers even conceptualise grief not as a reaction to the death, but as breaking the connection with another individual.

And by all means, research shows us that pain caused from social connections is real pain. Research has repeated shown that the feelings of heartbreak can be similar to that of physical pain. This pain is caused by the hormonal triggering of the sympathetic activation activation system (region where flight-or-flight stress takes place) and the parasympathetic nervous system.  To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg. The more rejected the participants report feeling, the more activity there was in the part of the brain that processes the distress of physical pain.

These studies are no doubt provocative and counter-intuitive. A broken leg and a broken heart seem like very different forms of pain. But there are evolutionary reasons why our brains process social pain the way they process physical pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Social pain signals that we are all alone—that we are vulnerable—and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there.

What makes me sad though, is that despite our evolutionary, biological and psychological needs for connection and belonging, we seem to be sacrificing our relationships more and more. Across the board, people are increasingly sacrificing their personal relationships for the pursuit of wealth. The American Freshman survey has been tracking the values of college students since the mid-1960s. The survey is a good barometer of social and cultural change and it shows how far we've come in prioritizing material values over social ones. In 1965, college freshman said that “starting a family” and “helping others” were more important life goals than being “very well off financially.” By the eighties, it was the reverse: “helping others” and “starting a family” were less important to college freshman than making a lot of money. In 2012, freshmen prioritizing being “very well-off financially” peaked at 81 percent, the highest that number has been in the survey’s history.

But here’s something ironic. When economists put a price tag on our relationships, we get a concrete sense of just how valuable our social connections are—and how devastating it is when they are broken. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbours on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie—here, in the case of getting divorced—it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

So, not only is our need to belong and connect with others a human need, it will make us feel richer. Let's get connected peeps!

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