5 Apr 2018

Why is belonging so important?

Does a migrant need to have a sense of belonging? Yes. Here is why.

'Belongingness' is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs rates it  after food, water and safety. We are a sociable animal.

A feeling of belonging helps you to:

  1. Have a healthy self esteem. Being wanted and loved makes you feel valued.
  2. Have somewhere to go for help through your support network e.g. How do I find a doctor?
  3. Help others. Being needed  helps our self esteem. In fact the motivation to help is so strong that even slaves set up a group help-fund to help each other. Every volunteer is satisfying the need to help others. "For it is in giving that we receive" St Francis of Assisi
  4. Feel a sense of identity. You are part of a group.
  5. Be more at ease about migrating. You are more rooted to the place around you.
  6. Make sense of the world around you. You have a group of people to share and compare your thoughts, opinions and concerns.
  7. Be more productive with a healthy self esteem and peace of mind.

When you do not feel you belong, you:

  1. Have isolation and mental health issues. 
  2. Are less motivated (Stanford University Associate Professor of Psychology, Greg Walton's  studies demonstrated that a sense of social belonging can affect motivation and continued persistence, even on impossible tasks. That is, if you don't feel like you belong, you are both less motivated and less likely to overcome obstacles.)
  3. Being less likely overcome obstacles, you may question your reason for migrating, you may consider returning to your country of origin when times get tough.
  4. Will feel lonely. 

Humans have an emotional need to be part of something that is greater than themselves. Migrants, who have left so much of their sense of belonging behind, have this same desire to want to be part of something.

In a migrant's initial years they will be clutching at ways to replace the sense of belonging they have left behind. Often the first group they may feel a sense of belonging with is other migrants with their experiences of migration. If these migrants are also from their country of origin, there may be a greater sense of belonging. Joining migrant cluster groups are best if the migrant doesn't rely on them solely. An interviewee from India in my book, said in her adopted country she and her husband, 'latched onto' an Indian community.
"I felt I had swapped one India for another." Not having any sense of belonging with her adopted country, she and her husband considered returning to India. A job offer in a different city came up and they decided to try again."We decided we wouldn't seek out Indian people, but would integrate with the society there. That was the winning thing, we actually got to know other people." At a later stage Nina's mother in law came to live with them. Her mother-in-law needed a slower pace to integrate, so Nina and her husband became involved in the Indian community too. "This way we now have two groups of friends and it works well."
Other interviewees have recommended, going to the library, joining more than one group in case the group you have chosen folds.

What else can a migrant do to help their sense of belonging?

  1. Be ready to give. A sense of belonging is about reaching out for friendship, and about being able to give back. If you are part of a group or community, you have talents that will be needed some day. When the opportunity comes, give! Volunteering is an excellent way to start.  John O’Brien once said, “It is dispiriting to always be the needy one.” Our souls are deprived of the chance to make a difference to others.
  2. Try and identify what has made you feel you belong in the past? How can you make that happen again? David Pitonyak, The Importance of Belonging includes an exercise on creating more inclusive environments by examining what it feels like to be excluded, what it feels like to be included and identifying what can be done to help people feel more included and increase their sense of belonging.
  3. If making friends seems a problem, Susan Kurliak and Johanna Johnson have 101 suggestions in their book 101 Ways to Make Friends. Here are some samples.
#37 Have one good joke you can tell. Practice it so you’re ready when there’s a gap in the conversation — be known as the one who made everyone feel comfortable.
#75 Collect something, and talk to others who share your passion...coins, hats, ceramic elephants, Elvis memorabilia…
#82 Give yourself permission to miss the mark. Nothing is going to be perfect the first time — to make one friend we need to meet a whole lot of people who won’t be our friends. Just keep trying.

What can people, organisations, and countries do to increase sense of belonging?

  • Maori, the New Zealand indigenous people have an expression, Manaakitanga. This is the Maori style of hospitality. Manaakitanga greeted early settlers to New Zealand. In an event to celebrate Chinese New Year, Chinese migrants who had been in New Zealand for over two decades were re-welcomed in a Powhiri (Maori welcome) in the spirit of Manaakitanga. The Chinese migrants said through this event they felt more of a sense of belonging to New Zealand than through two decades of being a migrant in New Zealand. The reasons for this extra sense of belonging could be put down to some spiritual similarities between Chinese and Maori, and or that the holistic and ceremonial welcoming supported the migrants'emotional need to belong more than a stamp in their passport.

  • Be proactive in welcoming migrants. Many countries have a welcoming communities operation running. By typing in welcoming and the country you are in you are likely to find web sites for your host country.Here are some examples.

Welcoming Communities NZ 
Newcomers Network NZ

  • There is more help on support networks in my book, The Emotional Challenges of Immigration Chapter 4 - Support Networks. Read it for free here.

Other useful links