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From Isolation to Connection: The Power of Belonging and Gratitude

Take a moment to remember a time when you felt lonely. Really lonely.

Maybe it was during a life event, such as experiencing the death of a loved one, going through a relationship break-up, retirement, changing jobs, starting at a university, experiencing mental health problems, becoming a parent, moving to a new area or country without family, friends, or community networks. Sometimes we feel lonely during a certain time of year, such as a holiday or season.

Loneliness epidemic – causes and symptoms

Guess what? You are not alone in feeling lonely. There is an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General.

The report released in 2023, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” finds that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.

And it warns that the physical consequences of poor connection can be devastating, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease; a 32% increased risk of stroke; and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.

Between 2003 and 2020, there was a noticeable rise in solitary activities and a corresponding decline in face-to-face social interactions.

Researchers have noted a general decrease in key components of social bonds, such as marital status, household size, and community engagement. These declines contribute to the growing prevalence of loneliness and social isolation, highlighting a broader crisis of connection.

Ultimately, this trend implies a reduction in informal support networks, which is particularly concerning given the rising numbers of older individuals and those grappling with chronic conditions.

Research indicates that certain individuals are more susceptible to loneliness than others. This vulnerability may be heightened if you:

  • Lack friends or family support.
  • Experience estrangement from your family.
  • Function as a single parent or caregiver, facing challenges in maintaining a social life.
  • Belong to a minority group residing in areas with limited representation of your background.
  • Encounter exclusion from social activities due to mobility issues.
  • Experience financial constraints limiting participation in certain social events.
  • Engage in shielding due to heightened susceptibility to severe illness from conditions like COVID-19.
  • Encounter discrimination and stigma due to disabilities or long-term health conditions, including mental health issues.
  • Face discrimination and stigma based on gender, race, or sexual orientation.
  • Have a history of sexual or physical abuse, impacting your ability to form close relationships.

Consider all of this in light of our 2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. This principle points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

Belonging – what is it and why is it so important?

So if you put loneliness on one end of an emotional spectrum, on the other end you’d find belonging.

A sense of belonging—the subjective feeling of deep connection with social groups, physical places, and individual and collective experiences—is a fundamental human need.

Earlier, I asked you to recall a time when you felt really lonely. Now I want you to think of a place or group where you felt like you truly belonged.

Belonging is the security and support you feel when you have a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity within a certain group. It is when you can bring your authentic self to wherever you are, whether that’s at school, the workplace, home, church, online community, or anywhere you spend your time. When we feel like we don’t belong, we suffer. 

Belonging is an inherent aspect of our existence, granted to us by the simple fact of being alive. This vitality endows us with dignity, which encompasses our inherent worthiness. Consequently, every individual possesses worth.

You’ll find the concept of belonging firmly rooted in our 1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Reverence and respect for human nature is at the core of UU faith. We believe that all the dimensions of our being carry the potential to do good. 

It’s crucial to differentiate between “fitting in” and belonging, as they offer distinct experiences. Fitting in often involves conformity to certain criteria set by a group, with gatekeepers determining acceptance. It requires adherence to ideologies, appearances, and doctrines dictated by the group.

On the contrary, belonging transcends mere affirmation of similarity or adherence to rigid standards. It doesn’t seek conformity or unanimous agreement. Belonging resides at the intersection of dignity, sanctity, and redemption. It allows for complete authenticity while fostering relationships with individuals vastly different from oneself. Belonging embodies the concept of both/and, embracing diversity and individuality within community.

Othering – why do we do it?

Living entails being in relationships, yet “othering” has become a modern-day epidemic. Our innate human need for belonging is so powerful that we may pursue it even through avenues that are detrimental to ourselves or our broader community. This is what leads ordinary people to end up joining gangs or extremist groups. Our natural inclination to gravitate towards those who resemble us can be exploited, potentially harming both individuals and communities. Scarce resources can exacerbate this, fostering competition between groups and fostering an “us” versus “them” mentality.

We often perceive our own group as superior and more deserving than others, leading to distrust and exclusion of outsiders. Moreover, within tightly-knit groups, there is often intense pressure to conform to group norms, often at the expense of individual autonomy. While cohesion and adherence to group norms can be beneficial in many cases, in certain contexts, these social pressures may justify or encourage unhealthy, unsafe, or unjust behaviors such as violence, discrimination, or excessive drinking.

So if we—in order to establish a sense of belonging within ourselves and among others—often resort to contempt, prejudice, oppression, and exclusion, could this be a root cause of the pervasive epidemic we face?

Is it possible that our pursuit of belonging has taken a misguided turn, fueling the widespread issue of “othering”?

This phenomenon is sustained by binary thinking, which undermines the inherent dignity of those who differ from us in various aspects—be it religiously, racially, culturally, politically, or intellectually. Instead of fostering relationships, many groups find themselves entrenched in deep opposition. But what purpose does this opposition serve? What are these groups and individuals attempting to safeguard? For some, it may be the comfort derived from their established structure, order, and perspective. For others, it may stem from a longing for the nurturing and supportive feeling of belonging, albeit muddled with the concept of mere conformity.

Grateful living as the antidote

“If loneliness is a malady born from a plague that is unraveling our interconnectivity, then gratefulness is the only remedy large enough to treat an illness that is pulling us apart when life requires us to put love into action and remain in relation.”

That is a quote from Joe Primo, CEO of Grateful Living, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people to live meaningful lives through the transformative practice of grateful living.

Grateful living opposes the divisive practice of othering. Rather than uniting through exclusions, embracing grateful living prompts us to seek, observe, and appreciate the multitude of ways in which we are never truly alone, never entirely independent or detached from others. Grateful living aids in addressing the root causes of societal issues by highlighting our interconnectedness, emphasizing the intricate web of relationships that sustain us.

Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like our 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The 7th  Principle may be our UU way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web—expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God—can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.

This perspective recognizes that losing sight of our interdependence can lead to detrimental consequences, spawning fear, greed, violence, exploitation, loneliness, despair, and conflict. These afflictions overshadow the vital space where a sense of belonging should flourish and thrive. Because everyone belongs in all of their uniqueness, grateful living challenges us to invite in and not cast out.

What is grateful living?

  • An orientation to life
  • A perspective and stance that empowers you to face the joy and sorrow that exist throughout life
    • Groundedness for all that comes your way
  • How you show up to yourself and others (a way of being)
  • An inner and outer resource that supports your discovery of meaning and purpose

The step you take forward when you are tempted to fall backward (resilience)

It is never fulfilled so long as you live

We are all practitioners. No hierarchy of who can do it best.

We are all invited in.
It is a daily practice that nurtures your perspective

To steer clear of the pitfalls of the rage machine and binary thinking, the practice of grateful living encourages us to root ourselves in the fundamental belief that “life is a gift.” This foundational belief fosters a perspective wherein every individual possesses inherent value. Rather than viewing anyone as expendable or disposable, we recognize the sacredness inherent in being alive.

Even when this sacredness may not be immediately apparent in others, gratitude prompts us to search more deeply for it, akin to uncovering a hidden treasure in the grass. Pause. Observe. Persist in your search. When tempted to give up, pause once more and delve deeper. This is what it means to embrace life—to be in constant connection and perpetually seeking opportunities to manifest love through action.

If we practice this way of living, the research says it will:

Improve our emotional health
Decrease toxic emotions
Increase our brain health and cognition
Improve our heart health
Improve our sleep quality
Strengthen our social bonds
Decrease depression
Increase self-esteem
Increase our resilience
Decrease aggression

·      So how do we go about this grateful living?

Grateful Gatherings

In the face of an epidemic of loneliness and othering, I am taking one small step toward the direction of connection and belonging. And I invite you to join me.

Each month, on the fourth Sunday, I will host a Grateful Gathering at a local coffee shop. Together, we will explore the transformative possibilities of grateful living, and discover greater meaning, purpose, and joy in your life.

So what is this Grateful Gathering thing? Grateful Gatherings take place every month both online and in homes and communities around the globe. Informed by spiritual wisdom, scholarship, and scientific research, the Gatherings provide community connection, invigorating reflection and conversation, and practical tools for living a meaningful and flourishing life. Gatherings are hosted by trained facilitators, utilize robust materials provided by our organization, and are open to anyone seeking inspiration, resources, and fellowship for living life with purpose and joy.

My hope is that Harmony folks can come together, along with people from the larger community, and create an inviting and compelling space for seekers from all walks of life. Through our ongoing engagement and dialogue, we will develop a vital sense of community, while deepening understanding of ourselves and others.

The first Grateful Gathering will take place later this month, Sunday, April 28, starting at 10 a.m. at Moonflower Collective Coffee in Sharonville. I hope to see you there.