Loneliness has become a risk factor for early death and tremendously decreases the quality of life. Meanwhile what most of us long for is a sense of belonging, being part of a community, to find our tribe. In short, we have in us what Alfred Adler called “social interest”.
Alfred Adler was one of the three great psychoanalysts of the last century next to Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. He developed a school of psychodynamic thinking called “Individual Psychology” and in contrast to Freud and Jung, his thinking was incredibly pragmatic and practical.
Don’t let the name Individual Psychology confuse you, though. Adler put a huge emphasis on interpersonal relationships. For Adler, the goal of interpersonal relationships is social interest (Gemeinschaftsgefühl in the German original).
What Does “Social Interest” mean?
Awareness of Belonging to a Community
Social interest is the awareness that you belong to a community. With community Adler doesn’t just mean your immediate family or town but he means all of existence. Everything from when time began stretching all the way into the far future, including everything that exists on planet earth. Even the ocean. And rocks. Get that.)
Adler knew very well that this idea of community was an ideal that was unattainable . But shoot for the moon and you land among the stars!
Responsiblity & Empathy
Social interest is not just the awareness that you belong to a community. It also encompasses the responsibility you have to contribute and shape society in a benevolent way. And it includes empathy and an altruistic stance you take towards others.
Having social interest means that you are equipped to function well and also have the capacity to flourish in a community, in relationship with others. And if we learned anything about humans it’s that we are social animals and need one another. For Adler, social interest was, therefore, the basic building block necessary for feeling a sense of belonging and happiness.
Consequently, getting your basic interpersonal relationships in order is fundamental because community starts with ‘You’ and ‘I’. It only needs two people for a community to emerge. This is where the next Adlerian concept comes in handy.
The Separation of Tasks
Another one of Adler’s key concepts called the “Separation of Tasks” helps you to simplify and improve your relationships. It does so by distinguishing between the things that you are responsible for and the things that are in your control – and the ones that are not.
Your task is to be useful to others, to accept yourself, believe in others, and fulfil your life tasks in love, friendship, and work to the best of your abilities. Any external judgment, even of whether you are truly useful, is the task of others. It should not concern you. Neither dislike nor praise. Because this is the task of other people.
The separation of tasks here is crucial. For as long as you seek recognition, reward, and attention from others, you will be self-centered. You are not truly concerned about others but merely about what judgement they reflect back about you.
From Self-Centered to Being Useful to Others
As long as you are only focused on yourself and what other people think about you, you won’t be able to commit to community, contribute to it and feel like you belong.
This, by the way, is a common problem with many psychopathologies, for example depression or some personality disorders. You can become so focused on your own misery that you completely lose connection and concern for anyone else. While a sense of community, positive experiences with other people would help to stop this downward spiral, the continuous self-centered ‘I feel so bad. I’m miserable.’ ends up disconnecting you from others.
A sense of belonging and true happiness emerges when you feel useful to others. When you can contribute and be beneficial to society.
And because this concept of social interest that can lead to a feeling of true belonging and happiness is connected to other concepts such as self-acceptance, courage, believing in others, and the separation of tasks, this does not mean to completely sacrifice yourself for others.
You need to accept yourself and have confidence and courage that you can face your life tasks of love, work and friendship. You need to believe in others, see them as comrades not enemies (what Adler would call building horizontal relationships) and you need to contribute to others.
Through this feeling of contributing to society, by being useful to others, you get your own sense of self-worth. You find happiness and true belonging.
By being truly committed to your community, you will belong.