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There Are Four Paths to Belonging... Are You Expending Energy Toward the Best Ones?

Updated: Jul 20

This is the 1st of a 5 post series on how authentic communities can contribute to our sense of belonging.

Now that the dust from the Superbowl has settled, it’s time for my hot take: sports fandom, while it may give someone "bursts" of belonging, is not the best way to go about finding a deep sense of belonging. In fact, it’s side-stepping the actual work required to find it.


Prof. Jennifer Hirsch from Yale’s Dept. of Psychology identified four paths to belonging in a 2019 published paper:

  • The communal-relationship path (“intimacy path”) - The development of close, communal relationships characterized by secure attachment (e.g. romantic partners, deep friendships)

  • The group-memberships path (“community(s)”) - Being a member of a group, even one that a person may not even intentionally join (e.g. book club, rec league, American citizenship)

  • The general-approbation path (“external approval”) - People engage in status-seeking activities, approval, or praise (e.g. driving a luxury car, waving a flag)

  • The minor-sociability path (“microinteractions”) - Minor social interactions in our day-to-day social lives (e.g. waving to neighbors)

While all of these paths play a role in helping us find belonging (to what extent we don't know), one way of differentiating them is by placing them on a 2x2 matrix where we graph their execution difficulty and risk/reward ratio. Execution difficulty is how hard is it to embark on the path (e.g. level of effort). Risk/reward ratio is the amount of risk the path involves and the potential reward it may yield (e.g. vulnerability leading to happiness).

As you can see, the communal relationship path (an academic term for a deep and intimate relationship) is only found in very few special relationships we have in our lives. It's exceptionally hard to find our person or bff yet very rewarding when we do.


The group membership path is easier to execute because there are plenty of options for communities one could join. Here is a zoomed in breakdown of the path on the matrix, with examples. The bottom line is that communities that are harder to can sometimes, not always, be more rewarding.


In Focus: Group Memberships Quadrant

This is why I've urged people to look for what I've referred to as a capital-c community and created a taxonomy to help differentiate between types of communities.


My goal in sharing this is to help make you think about belonging more deliberately. This is why I’m excited about my forthcoming book, Finding Belonging (ForbesBooks, 2022). It will be a playbook that will cover these kinds of ideas and provide readers with specific steps of how to find their own belonging.

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