At the core of every community is a sense of belonging. It creates the framing for the who and the why. It defines a community's purpose and the value it provides to its members and the world.
"First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase. It is the opposite of thinking that wherever I am, I would be better off somewhere else. Or that I am still forever wandering, looking for that place where I belong. The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends." — Peter Block
This belonging is made up of three parts, that Peter Block very concisely framed as:
- Belonging to Community
- Community Belonging to You
- Longing for Community
Belonging to Community
You belong to a community when you have something in common with the people around you. This commonality can be either by circumstance or by choice. It has to be more than a superficial token and more of a deep, meaningful trait, experience or belief that can’t easily be replaced. It needs to be believable and evoke a sense of trust. What and how much you need to have in common to pass this threshold depends on the nature of the commonality but also the people involved. There's also the question of mutuality – do you as much as everyone around you feel you belong together? In its strongest form belonging to also means that the community itself claims you as their own and that they will be there for you, listen to and support you.
Circumstance can mean you're connected through a
- place, where you grew up or where you studied.
- shared history which can be an external event or powerful experience such as success, failure or trauma. Your heritage in the form of a set of shared values or cultural norms. Or though your peers and elders that are made up of your co-workers, friends and family.
- your inherent traits such as your age or identifying gender.
Communities of Choice can be established through
- practice and affinity, that is your profession, your hobbies or interests to learn something, from each other or create a change in yourself. Fan communities and sports clubs are some more examples.
- action, which means you're creating change in your community or in the world. These are often movements, environmental or political for example, that are time or goal based.
- intentional communities where you would select the place and people you want to be around. Co-living or cooperatives are one example
Community Belonging to You
As much as you belong to a community, it has to also belong to you. This crucial piece is often overlooked or not well understood and it’s also one of the harder pieces of the community puzzle. How can it start belonging to its members? They have to put themselves and their energy into it by contributing and co-creating. This stake and say in the community allows them to become a part of it.
It's challenging because co-creation means that members have to be invited to contribute and are given the tools, trust and autonomy to do so. The best environment for this is one in which everyone feels like a teacher and a student at the same time with a willingness to share but also an openness to learn. The challenge is finding the right balance between structure, hierarchy and authority and creating an organization that can both be centralized and distributed as needed.
Honoring contributors for their effort and work, as well as having clear guidelines on expectations on commitments, use and ownership become important. In the end it's about finding a balance between give and get, creating and receiving, group dynamic, individual efforts and leadership. Gillian Davis, a leadership coach, uses this analogy of a Leadership Pendulum.
“The key is knowing when to let the group dynamic flow and allow for self managed work and when it's time to step in, bring the constraints and the direction back.” — Gillian Davis
From Me to We
More generally speaking members have to move from a consumer and spectator to contributor and co-creator mindset, from me to we.
Longing for Community
The third pillar is the hardest to see because it lives deep inside of us. It's part of our biology and evolution as social animals. We've all felt it, it's a feeling of calm, it arises when everything feels clear and falls into place. You might call it an emotion or urge and it can manifest itself as love for a person, a place or an idea and makes you feel like you belong together. It can give you purpose and make you whole.
"People form social attachments readily under most conditions and resist the dissolution of existing bonds. Belongingness appears to have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and on cognitive processes. Lack of attachments is linked to a variety of ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being." — Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary
It’s in our Nature (Evolution, Biology & Psychology)
This belonging is deeply biological. Daniel Coyle in his book Culture Code talks about it in the form of belonging cues. These cues are processed in our Amygdala, the part of our brain that subconsciously manages our fight or flight response. In other words it helps us interpret a situation and decide if it's safe or dangerous. These belonging cues build and sustain our social bonds. Being with and around the right people who cared for each other could mean the difference between life and death for our ancestors. Therefore community is deeply ingrained in our biological survival instincts. Humans have traditionally been very aware of their interconnectedness to each other, their environment and the effects of their behaviour on nature’s intricate ecosystem. An ecosystem that required harmonious and symbiotic relationships to flourish.
As an extension of that, belonging is also very much about caring. Caring is defined as feeling concern or interest for, attaching importance to, feeling affection towards or providing for the needs of something or someone. This can be understood in a transactional way: as in caring for ourselves or our own interests, in a more generous sense: as in providing for others, or in the most selfless way: seeing ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem that we must contribute to because we are part of it.
Health & Happiness
There have also been a number of studies that have looked at the effects of our social bonds on our health and happiness. A fascinating Harvard study that's been ongoing since 1938 and is one of the world’s longest studies of adult life revealed “that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health”, in the words of Robert Waldinger, the studies director. Susan Pinker, another psychologist, found that the biggest factors for a long life are our social integration and close relationships. They were a bigger indicator for longevity than quitting smoking or drinking and exercising. Again being around people you can trust, feel safe and rely on is a fundamental need that we have but also a way for us to be our best selves.
In Summary, TLDR;
Belonging is threefold: You belong to it, it belongs to you and you having a longing for it. We belong to community either by circumstance (through shared history, experience, traits) or choice (by way of affinities, practices, actions). Community belongs to us when we contribute and co-create and change our perspective from me to we. Our longing for community comes naturally, deeply biological need for connection, which allows us to live happier and healthier lives.