What Is the Sense of Belonging?

group of kids linking arms in a circle

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The sense of belongingness, also known as the need to belong, refers to a human emotional need to affiliate with and be accepted by members of a group. Examples of this may include the need to belong to a peer group at school, to be accepted by co-workers, to be part of an athletic team, or to be part of a religious group.

What do we mean by the sense of belonging? A sense of belonging involves more than simply being acquainted with other people. It is centered on gaining acceptance, attention, and support from members of the group as well as providing the same attention to other members.

The need to belong to a group also can lead to changes in behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes as people strive to conform to the standards and norms of the group.

In social psychology, the need to belong is an intrinsic motivation to affiliate with others and be socially accepted. This need plays a role in a number of social phenomena such as self-presentation and social comparison.

Sense of Belonging in Action

What inspires people to seek out specific groups? In many cases, the need to belong to certain social groups results from sharing some point of commonality. For example, teens who share the same taste in clothing, music, and other interests might seek each other out to form friendships. Other factors that can lead individuals to seek out groups include:

  • Pop culture interests
  • Religious beliefs
  • Shared goals
  • Socioeconomic status

People often present themselves in a particular way in order to belong to a specific social group. For example, a new member of a high school sports team might adopt the dress and mannerisms of the other members of the team in order to fit in with the rest of the group.

People also spend a great deal of time comparing themselves to other members of the group in order to determine how well they fit in. This social comparison might lead an individual to adopt some of the same behaviors and attitudes of the most prominent members of the group in order to conform and gain greater acceptance.

Effect of the Sense of Belonging

Our need to belong is what drives us to seek out stable, long-lasting relationships with other people. It also motivates us to participate in social activities such as clubs, sports teams, religious groups, and community organizations.

In Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the sense of belongingness is part of one of his major needs that motivate human behavior. The hierarchy is usually portrayed as a pyramid, with more basic needs at the base and more complex needs near the peak. The need for love and belonging lie at the center of the pyramid as part of social needs.

By belonging to a group, we feel as if we are a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.

While Maslow suggested that these needs were less important than physiological and safety needs, he believed that the need for belonging helped people to experience companionship and acceptance through family, friends, and other relationships.

A 2020 study on college students found a positive link between a sense of belonging and greater happiness and overall well-being, as well as an overall reduction in mental health outcomes including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Loneliness
  • Social anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts

Increase Your Sense of Belonging

How do we create a sense of belonging? There are steps you (or a loved one who is struggling) can take to increase the sense of belonging.

  • Make an effort: Creating a sense of belonging takes effort, to put yourself out there, seek out activities and groups of people with whom you have common interests, and engage with others. 
  • Be patient: It might take time to gain acceptance, attention, and support from members of the group.
  • Practice acceptance: Focus on the similarities, not the differences, that connects you to others, and remain open to new ways of thinking.

A Word From Verywell

A sense of belonging is a crucial for good physical and mental health. If you continue to struggle with loneliness or the sense of not fitting in, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. They can help you to identify the root of your feelings and provide strategies for achieving belongingness.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Pillow DR, Malone GP, Hale WJ. The need to belong and its association with fully satisfying relationships: A tale of two measures. Pers Individ Dif. 2015;74:259-264. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.10.031

  3. Kenrick DT, Griskevicius V, Neuberg SL, Schaller M. Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundationsPerspect Psychol Sci. 2010;5(3):292–314. doi:10.1177/1745691610369469

  4. Moeller RW, Seehuus M, Peisch V. Emotional intelligence, belongingness, and mental health in college studentsFront Psychol. 2020;11:93. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00093

  5. Fisher LB, Overholser JC, Ridley J, Braden A, Rosoff C. From the outside looking in: sense of belonging, depression, and suicide riskPsychiatry. 2015;78(1):29-41. doi: 10.1080/00332747.2015.1015867

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.