Be Inspired

Feeling like you don’t belong to your community can hurt – literally.


This #WeBelongWR post by Dr. Cindy Ward of Kitchener, dives into the research on belonging, showing us that belonging isn’t just a nice thing – our physical health depends on it. Thank you Dr. Ward for sharing this post from your blog!

People need to feel like they belong.  It is a fundamental human need (1).  When we don’t feel like we belong it triggers the pain regions of the brain – and “the hurt becomes physical,” says researcher Kipling Williams of Purdue University (2).

So, when we say that we have a broken heart – it’s true. Broken hearts manifest both emotionally and physically.

Williams’ research looks at the response to being left out: pain, coping, and — if the exclusion goes on for a long time — depression and a feeling of helplessness (3).

Even subtle behaviors, such as withholding eye contact or staring through someone as if they do not exist can induce feelings of ostracism (4). Most individuals experience ostracism at least once in their lives but some experience it daily (2).

unnamedThere has been a revitalized interest in the importance of belonging for human social behaviour. With all of the research pouring in over the last few decades we’ve learned that belongingness is such a fundamental human need that it is right up there with having enough income to pay your bills, having your health, and having a sense of autonomy to make your own decisions (5).

Friends and family can provide a sense of belonging, however, an important, and often overlooked sense of belonging comes from one’s connection to larger social groups.

We often define ourselves in terms of our professions, our hobbies, and our involvement in a variety of other social groups. For example, I consider myself to be connected to many people involved in music and the arts around my community – a loose group, indeed; but If I ever had a falling out with these people, it would surely devastate me.

Canada’s General Social Survey on Social Identity based on 2013 data found that while most Canadians feel like they belong to Canada (about 65% on avg.), roughly only 34% feel connected to their local community.

That leaves a lot of room for improvement in helping people feel a sense of belonging within their immediate environment.

And indeed, special effort is likely needed for people with disabilities and mental health challenges, new Canadians, people living in poverty, Aboriginal people, the LGBTQ community, etc.

We all need to feel like we belong. And if we don’t, it hurts – literally.

Social values are important in Canada and many Canadian communities are working on improving their community and neighbourhood programs, however, the statistics tell an important story: there is still a long way to go in helping all citizens feel welcomed and included in our communities.


Cindy and GeetarDr. Cindy Ward is a native of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada and has a PhD in social and behavioural psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University. Cindy is a Sr. Associate at BEworks and studies human motivation. She really likes Self-Determination Theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as good theories for “why people do what they do.”  She also dabbles in ‘death’ (ahem . . . I mean terror management theory).  Most of all, though, Cindy likes to argue. So, if you disagree or have any comments, please email her at

  1. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.
  1. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
  1. Williams, K. D. (2009). Ostracism: A temporal need‐threat model. Advances in experimental social psychology, 41, 275-314.
  1. Wesselmann, E. D., Cardoso, F. D., Slater, S., and Williams, K. D. (2012). “To be looked at as though air”: civil attention matters.  Sci. 23, 166–168
  1. Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (Eds.). (2015). World happiness report 2015. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

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August 30th, 2016

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