The Common: A Modern Sense of Place: Issue 06

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TC readers will no doubt join me in appreciation of his poems, which are simultaneously deeply moving and surprisingly comic. Hopefully you will also relish my aggressive effort to deliver his work to you. As soon as the reading was done I pursued him to the sidewalk, where I procured a promise that he would send us poems to publish.

Dabrowski is only thirty-four but has already published eight books of poetry; the list of his prizes is longer than the ingredients for plum pudding. His work has been translated around the world—into twenty languages—and his readership continues to grow. In New Mexico, days end with soaking the frijoles for tomorrow.

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People like food that hurts them as they eat it. Often, Jim left for work at am. Ground fog hovers out the back kitchen window, warm air over snow.

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We set out to walk before coffee. Story highlights Social belonging is a fundamental human need Research: One instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, IQ test performance Study enlists subjects as experts to help "others" going through difficulty. These are a few of a handful of powerful messages that an elegantly designed "belonging intervention" by social psychologist and Stanford assistant professor Gregory Walton conveys to study participants who are going through a difficult period.

In a series of ongoing studies, first published in in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , the belonging intervention uses a technique known as "attributional retraining" to help people shift blame for negative events from "It's just me" to "I'm not alone, and there are others going through it. The goal is to convey to the subjects that when bad things happen, it doesn't mean they don't belong in general. Because as humans, we need to belong. To one another, to our friends and families, to our culture and country, to our world.

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Belonging is primal, fundamental to our sense of happiness and well-being. Belonging is a psychological lever that has broad consequences, writes Walton.

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Our interests, motivation, health and happiness are inextricably tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community that may share common interests and aspirations. Isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person's subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health. Research shows that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, IQ test performance and self-control.


Walton's earlier studies demonstrated that a sense of social belonging can affect motivation and continued persistence, even on impossible tasks. That is, if you don't feel like you belong, you are both less motivated and less likely to hang in there in the face of obstacles. Even outside a research setting, these are valuable lessons we can all draw from as we navigate life's difficult circumstances.

Though Walton's research has involved only students, his work has powerful implications for the workplace and other contexts. According to Rajita Sinha, the head of Yale's Stress Center, stress itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

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  8. But stress that is sustained, uncontrollable and overwhelming, in which people can't figure out options to solve their problems, wreaks havoc on us. Walton's belonging intervention has the potential to downgrade uncontrollable stress by allowing people to put a narrative around their traumatic experiences. It places those experiences in a box, he says, "with a beginning, a middle and an end. As a consequence, the meaning of the negative experience is constrained, and people understand that when bad things happen, it's not just them, they are not alone, and that it's something that passes.

    Walton and his colleagues enlist the study subjects as experts to help "others" who may be similarly situated and going through a difficult time.

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    The researchers provide subjects with statistics, quotations and stories from upperclassmen about their experiences -- how they struggled at first but eventually got through it -- and ask participants to use that information to write about getting through their own difficulties and how it gets better. The participants, who believe they are writing for the next generation of incoming freshmen -- an audience many of them relate to and care about -- begin to engage with the material and use it to reflect on their own experiences, ultimately coming to the conclusion that no matter how bad they feel, they are not alone.

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    This is particularly powerful in settings where people have a looming alternative explanation, as in the case of minorities, women and gay youth.