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The Power of Belonging

Joining groups that ignite your passions helps build self-esteem—even more than having many friends.

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by Sarah Mahoney

Well-Being
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If you’re the kind of person who’s leery of joining clubs or groups, here’s a new reason to dive in: It’s a fast, easy way to build self-esteem.

That’s big news, especially for the millions of people trying to work on life-change as a solo endeavor. “People always look at things that they can change about themselves when they want to become stronger people and more positive about themselves,” says Jolanda Jetten, Ph.D., professor of social psychology at University of Queensland in Australia, and lead author of the research. “They might push themselves to work harder, go to the gym more or do exciting things such as traveling to make their lives more interesting.” While those strategies are fine, she says, “our data suggest that another good strategy would be to just work harder at getting better connected.”

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Researchers found that people who belonged to many groups had consistently higher self-esteem—so long as the groups added something to the joiners’ sense of themselves, providing some basis for social identity. In other words, it won’t do a couch potato much good to join a hiking group, she says, or for someone who is apolitical to volunteer for a candidate’s campaign. 

Surprisingly, belonging to groups actually does more to boost people’s self-esteem than having a large network of friends, a result she chalks up to groups’ greater ability to add “meaning, connection, support and a sense of control over our lives.”

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It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a weekly Scrabble match or an annual meditation retreat—civic, leisure, religious and social groups all confer the same benefits. (Since researching this topic, Jetten has joined a cycling club and a book group.)

Jetten’s work builds on previous research showing that belonging to groups makes people healthier by preventing cognitive decline, particularly as age increases. For example, a 50-year-old with many group affiliations functions cognitively at the level of 46-year-old, and a socially engaged 80-year-old has the same cognitive performance as a less-involved 70-year-old. Group membership also seems to protect against depression.

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Jetter says her research furnishes a good reason to step away from what she calls “the fetishization of self-esteem,” and the idea that it’s something we can acquire by working on ourselves a little bit harder. “The focus should not be on the individual self, but on others around us—and paradoxically, such a social focus does good things for how we feel about ourselves as individuals.” 

Photo Credit: Nisian Hughes/Getty Images