What do people who’ve led major international organizations, directed healthcare and art associations, or helped create major motion pictures say about the importance of belonging? What do they say about its relationship with leadership and its role in promoting success? And most importantly, what does belonging mean for us—for our health, our wellbeing, and happiness?
“I think we’ve all started to realize how much we need it,” says Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (EDI). She says belonging is a crucial element of societal cohesion—it works as the connective tissue that keeps communities linked and working together even during times of turmoil and stress. “Belonging is a powerful force in our communities. Like a muscle when it’s healthy and well-trained, it connects parts of a body and allows it to move.”
Similarly, belonging connects parts of a diverse community, allowing those parts to work together more fluidly—even to take on global issues as we saw during the pandemic. “Several studies have indicated in places where there was a stronger sense of belonging, people did better,” Villarreal says. “They made masks for their neighbors, delivered meals, and looked out for each other.”
But she also says a strong sense of belonging can lift our mood and protect us in times of stress. “I want people to remember how good they feel when they have that strong sense of belonging—and I want them to want to share that with others.” That’s why she decided to call the new EDI podcast “The Joy of Belonging” and make it a part of the Celebrating U Completely platform—a university-wide strategy aimed at building a campus community where everyone knows they belong.
She points to the Harvard study— now nearly 100 years old and still going strong—that’s found our human bonds and relationships are key to our overall sense of wellbeing. “Belonging has always been about joy—and our health,” Villarreal says and adds that we need to start talking about it the same way we talk about diet or exercise—as something we do to make our lives better.
Unfortunately, most of the news lately has focused on the problems with Americans’ sense of belonging. From the Surgeon General’s warning about the “epidemic of loneliness” to concerns about its impact on mental health, to stories about social isolation and political polarization, most of the recent reports on belonging have been discouraging, to say the least. And when belonging erodes in communities, the civic good it helps produce in neighborhoods, cities, and towns can break down and greater tension and divisions can arise to take its place.
But in the midst of all the disturbing news, Villarreal insists it’s important that we remember that belonging ultimately feels good, makes us better, and strengthens our collective wellbeing. It connects us to each other, allows us to work together to accomplish things we could never do alone, and gives us a greater sense of purpose and meaning. “We hope the conversations we have [on the podcast] help remind everyone … of how good it feels to belong,” she says.
Join us as we travel from the classroom to the workplace to the movie theater and sporting arena—with many stops in between—in The Joy of Belonging podcast. To learn more about the podcast, review a schedule for upcoming episodes and guests, and subscribe, please visit the Joy of Belonging page or find it on Spotify, YouTube, or YouTube Music.