There is this old saying among the Akan people of Ghana that a family is like a forest. When you are outside, it is dense; when you are inside, you see that each tree has its place. I find this proverb accepting, and encouraging, and I want to bring its meaning to our discussion about “sense of belonging”.
Belonging has been used a lot in the workplace, community, and education system as a way to let new people feel at home. But what exactly does ‘belonging” mean? Jana Renner, from Indiana University in the United States, refers to a sense of belonging as a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group.
People in society need safety, support, and happiness. Jennifer Blaney, a psychologist, says a high sense of belongingness and social support is positively correlated with mental health, quality of life, improved physical health, and a sense of well-being. In contrast, the perception of a lack of social support or loneliness can have negative effects on an individual’s physical and mental health.
We find belonging in many different places: some find it in a particular community, others find it at a workplace, church, mosque, friends, family, and the neighbourhood. Just like we need food and a roof over our heads, we need acceptance. Belonging is beyond our relationships. Our connections and relationships facilitate belonging. It’s all about seeing that others care about our wellbeing and happiness.
How to create belonging is to behave like the Akan people of Ghana. A family is like a forest; when you are outside, it is dense; when you are inside, you see that each tree has its place. It’s the feeling of happiness that we get. Each of us has a duty to make new people or friends feel at home.
A new person, too, has a duty to build a sense of belonging. There are ways to create belongingness for oneself. Instead of focusing on how you are different from others, think of ways you are like other people. You can also find belonging by accepting others. It works both ways; you can receive it or provide it.
Just like the Akan family, we are a stronger society when we support one another, and each one of us has a role to play. Don’t exclude others. A sense of belonging improves a community, it’s our social identity. Be like one branch of the same tree in the Akan’s forest!