If you’re like the majority of people, you don’t feel as connected as you’d like—lacking a feeling of belonging or community. But you can rebuild belonging and reconnect with your people. It will take intentional effort, and it’s possible based on a few scientific findings which point to what will matter most.
It’s helpful to start with the fact that if you’re feeling alone, you’re not alone. In fact, the craving for connection is arguably at crisis levels with up to 27% of people reporting they don’t have friends and 43% of people saying they lack a sense of connection with co-workers.
It’s logical that with the physical distance which was required during the pandemic, emotional distance became widespread in personal relationships as well. And it’s reasonable that working away from colleagues—even with the magic of technology—increases feelings of disconnection. Validating your own experience and that of others is a great place to start, and then taking action is the important next step—to rebuild, reset and rewire your relationships.
Building Bonds and Bridges
Consider two kinds of social capital: Bonding social capital describes your feelings of closeness with those in your own circle, team or department. Bridging social capital is your feelings of solidarity with those in different social or professional groups. You need both, and you can build each of these.
Here are some science-backed ways to get more from your relationships.
Contrary to the belief that gaming creates separation and solitude, it turns out gaming can be a great way to bring people together. A report from the Entertainment Software Association found 83% of people say playing video games together creates a feeling of community and 88% say it brings diverse groups together, introducing people to new friends and relationships. And 77% of parents play video games with children, enjoying shared time together. Another study also found work groups who played games together increased their productivity by 20%.
Implication: Initiate playing games with your friends, family or colleagues. Gaming works because it tends to unite people in a shared goal or mission, and it increases the time people spend together (studies show it takes about 60 hours to build a solid friendship). Whether you’re playing video games, board games or even classic strategy games like chess, they provide an opportunity to interact in casual, relaxed settings and experience a range of emotions together (the intensity of competition, the despair of an epic defeat or celebration in a wonderful win)—all of which enhance belonging.
Text Your Friends
Building relationships and feeling connected are based on a sense of proximity—the feeling that others are close-at-hand and easily accessible. Invest in spending time face-to-face over coffee or with a shared walk through the park together, but also reach out through text or other digital means.
A study at the University of Wisconsin found digital messaging—and especially text—were effective in building relationships. The reason they made a difference is because they tended to communicate people were thinking about each other and taking time to reach out. The study found quantity was actually not as important as quality—communicating a real caring or attention to the other person.
Implication: Make it a habit to reach out to others. Let them know you’re thinking about them. Check in on the friend who just started a new job or send a quick TGIF text to the colleague who has had a hard week. Or stay in touch with the co-worker who has just retired, as you set the foundation to maintain a great relationship. All of these are good for the people you’re reaching out to, but they contribute tremendously to your own sense of belonging and connectedness as well.
Happiness is highly correlated with lending support to others. Giving of yourself and focusing less on what you need and more on what you can contribute tend to foster your sense of joy. In addition, a study from the University Pittsburgh found when people offer support to others, there is increased activity in the reward parts of the brain (you feel good when you help others) and there is reduced activity in the parts of the brain which generate stress responses.
Implication: Tune into friends, family and colleagues, and ask questions about how they’re doing. Listen for ways they might need help and offer to support. While you may believe you’re too busy to give away your time, ironically, when you volunteer and invest in doing for others, you actually tend to perceive you have more time yourself. So tune in, reach out and contribute to others in order to feel a greater sense of belonging.
Gratitude is linked with happiness and joy, but also with a greater sense of belonging. Studies have found when people express more gratitude, they tend to feel better about themselves and others. This has to do with the positive social meanings people ascribe to gratitude. In addition, studies found when people heard someone express gratitude, they were more likely to conclude they could form a meaningful relationship with the person, because of the constructive connotations of appreciation.
Implication: Cultivate a sense of gratitude by waking up in the morning and reminding yourself of what you’re grateful for, and doing the same before you close your eyes at night. Focus less on gratitude for things and more on appreciation for people, conditions or capabilities. In addition, express appreciation to others, for the contribution they made to a project, for their friendship or sense of humor. When you express more gratitude, you’ll feel a greater sense of connection with others, and build better relationships.
Laughter is also powerful for bonding. A study at the University of North Carolina; found when people laugh together, they tend to feel more similarity to the person or the group—more united and more solidarity. In addition, sharing a laugh tended to make people feel more supported.
Implication: Don’t hold back your whacky sense of humor or your eclectic way of looking at the world. When you joke around or tease, it gives people a window into how you think and tends to reduce defenses of those around you. Be appropriate with your humor, of course, but also look for levity and bring a light attitude, even to serious projects. This will increase connection and belonging.
Find Common Ground
With all the polarization and extreme differences of opinion which are at the forefront, it’s easy to get discouraged about community. According to research, relationships tend to begin with similarities. A study at Wellesley College found people start relationships based on things they have in common. You want to grow and learn from people who are different, but sometimes it can be helpful to find values you share or interests on which you align.
Implication: Perhaps you’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but you’re both looking forward to your children starting school in the same district. Or perhaps your ideas about climate change are as different as night and day, but you’re both huge outdoor enthusiasts. These commonalities are the raw material of lasting relationships—so focus on what you share and have in common. This is a sure-fire way to connect, belong and feel the support of community.
Belonging may be deteriorating, but people can reconnect and salvage bonds which may have been broken or dormant. Hybrid work can be the best of both worlds, but one downside can be the distance it creates. Seek to build bonds with those in your inner circle and bridge to those outside your immediate group.
Be intentional about how you connect with not only colleagues, but also with people in your personal life. And invest time with others—both personally and professionally. These will payoff in terms of your own experience, but also in the experience you create for others.