Alone in nature.

Alone in nature. Credit: iStock/

The urge to belong is strong in humans. In our earliest days, belonging was essential for our physical survival.

Nowadays, sociologists and psychologists and our own darned selves tell us belonging is no less important though in other less-obvious ways having to do with self-esteem, satisfaction, and mental health.

All through our life cycle, we crave that sense of belonging — even if we tell ourselves we don't need it at those times when we can't find it. We welcome playmates in elementary school, find our cliques in junior high, join clubs and teams in high school and college, seek out kindred tribes as adults.

Most of us know implicitly if not by experience that loneliness and alienation are awful.

As it turns out, more of us might know this by experience than anyone could have imagined. An astonishing new report finds that a majority of Americans say they feel a sense of non-belonging — feeling excluded or unsure or ambiguous about whether you belong. The specifics are alarming — 64% report non-belonging in their workplace, 68% in the nation, and 74% in their local community, the very place one might expect the highest sense of belonging. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans felt they did not belong in any of the life settings measured.

I don't think most of us would have expected such high numbers, based on what we see around us. Which leads one to wonder how many of us are suffering in silence, alienated but not even recognized as such.

Think about what those numbers mean for us as individuals. For our communities. Our society. Has the fraying of key institutions like religion contributed to this sense of non-belonging or been a victim of it? Was our deepening reliance on social media a reaction to this alienation or a cause of it?

In analyzing the fissures in our national fabric, we talk about people living in silos, congregating only with others who think like us and live like us. But what if we are our own silos? What if we are even more fragmented than we believed?

The report was produced by the American Immigration Council and Over Zero, an anti-violence advocacy group, and it was culled from results of a survey conducted by YouGov of 4,905 respondents ages 18 and above. 

One subset of the data in particular set me back. It had to do with the degree to which we don't feel part of this nation.

Some 68% of Americans said they felt a sense of national non-belonging. That estrangement was fairly consistent across groups. Only 1 in 3 white Americans felt accepted by and connected to their own nation, and only 1 in 4 Black, Asian and Native Americans. 

The survey was done in December 2021, so it's possible that the great fracturer of belonging, the pandemic, influenced the numbers to some degree. But the political implications are nevertheless profound.

It's no secret that our democracy is in trouble, beset as it has been by the creeping tendrils of authoritarian-leaning politicians. But on what does that feed?

The report recalls the well-known warning from renowned 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who twice fled the Nazis, that authoritarianism "bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man."

Political demagogues with no principles other than the pursuit of power have always thrived on that discontent. They exploit it and mold it into resentment, then division. This epidemic of non-belonging was a petri dish for our current politics of grievance. Feeling that you don't belong is kin to feeling you're being left behind, and someone must be blamed.

We didn't need a report to tell us we're in trouble. But it does help to know why.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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