Join the Club: How We Seek to Belong

6 min readApr 24, 2024

By Marlis Jansen with Gabrielle Sills

Last month, in a Wim Hof breathwork training, our instructor introduced the technique — a practice focused on breathing and cold exposure — and explained that in modern society, humans don’t have real threats to our existence any more. It used to be, the instructor explained, that we had to fend for our own survival, hunting and foraging for our food, making sure we had water and, of course, maintaining the strength to escape from wild animals and enemy attacks. Now, he explained, to attain optimal health, we must simulate this state of being in threat so that we can train our bodies to be strong and adaptable.

Wait a minute.

We absolutely do experience being in a state of threat during our modern lives. We may not face wild animals on a regular basis, but for quite some time now — even when we were facing more direct physical attacks — the most significant threat to human existence has been the threat of not belonging, of being cast out from the tribe. This is not a political post, but this issue does seem to be the fulcrum of identity politics.

And as I’ve thought about belonging, identity, and tribes, the topic of clubs comes to mind. Clubs are a perfect microcosm for exploring the topic of belonging.

Growing up, my family never joined any club. My father had been raised in rural Ohio where the country club was a center for many families’ social lives. He found it stifling and boring and never wanted to spend his time in such exclusive places. For the same reason, he disliked fancy hotels and resorts. We traveled. But our experiences were more offbeat and quirky.

In the 70’s, my parents had planned to move back to Ohio from New York City where I was born so that my father could take over the family business. But after a visit to relatives in Berkeley, they decided to move to California instead. While this was not the most popular decision with the family, my father felt liberated from a lifestyle he had left behind when he left Ohio for college on the East Coast.

He and my mother established a new lifestyle, making art and new friends. He helped his father with the family business part time, but would spend several days a week out in nature painting with a new community of artist friends. He became a dedicated environmentalist. Each of these communities brought him great joy, and he dedicated much time and resources to cultivating them.

Upon reflecting I’ve had the thought: weren’t these new communities essentially clubs of a different kind?

Clubs as a way to access “belonging”

Conceptually, a club is a group of people with like interests who choose to associate themselves with each other. When we join a club, we commit time, money, or both to attain membership, and in so doing, receive nominal benefits like access to activities or a swimming pool or holiday festivities.

But we also get something more. Beyond whatever superficial benefits are available, we also get a community of other people with similar interests that bestows upon us a sense of belonging. A place where we presumably have at least one thing in common with the other members, if not also a shared set (or subset) of values. At their core, clubs satisfy our fundamental human need for connection and belonging. Clubs make the world feel a little bit smaller. A little friendlier.

We’re all familiar with conventional clubs like chess clubs and country clubs and tennis clubs and gyms, but there are more implicit clubs as well. We dont’ call them clubs, but we derive this same core benefit of belongingness from them. Think about the clothes we wear. Or where we live. Where we send our kids to school. Churches and synagogues and mosques. All of these groups go beyond their nominal benefits (like church services and chess instruction and space to exercise) to make us feel like part of a group, with things in common that bind us together.

The benefits of this belongingness are undeniable. Studies repeatedly show that people who feel part of a community are healthier, happier, and more equipped to deal with the challenges life throws our way.

It’s therefore no surprise that as membership of one of the biggest “clubs” — the church — has plummeted, we’ve seen a massive correlating spike in loneliness. 40 million Amerians have stopped going to church in the past 25 years, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, and along with that, they’ve seen that these unaffiliated Americaans are less likely to feel satisfied with their communities and more likely to feel lonely. A loneliness epidemic has been recognized for some time now with some city governments even declaring a state of emergency due to loneliness.

What about families — are they clubs?

It certainly can feel that way. Families bestow certain member benefits, like expenses being covered when you’re young, advice when you’re older, and even access to family assets like vacation homes. They also carry certain norms, like how much you get dressed up for family events or how freely people can push back on matriarchs and patriarchs. When you’re newer to the family club, it can take some time before you feel like a full-fledged member. And speaking of membership, families can even remove or ostracize members when they so choose, through divorce or fighting or removal from the holiday card list. And when someone does something wrong, it reflects poorly on the whole family.

The British royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle provide a prominent example of the family-as-club. Leaving the United Kingdom for Santa Barbara meant giving up their royal duties, since representing the royal family in an official capacity is reserved for active “members” of the family. Their refusal to comply with the norms of the royal family — assuming their rightful places in the royal hierarchy and keeping family business among family — ultimately meant that they had to surrender their “membership” to the family and start a new club on their own halfway across the world. While the royal family certainly has unique responsibilities and characteristics, it is not uncommon for people to step back from active participation in their family or to start a new family.

Families — in their ideal form — are ground zero for one’s sense of belonging. Entities that ideally always welcome us and that contribute positively to our identities. Without this experience, it’s easy to understand how individuals who do not benefit from a warm supportive family may not fully understand the value such a home life provides. And if they do, they might not have learned the skills to create it. Without it, however, people can seek it in others — from friends and other communities — and learn the power of belonging from experiencing it elsewhere.

So what?

In comparison to our foraging ancestors — for whom the choice was simply to either be with the tribe or not — we have an endless supply of clubs and social groups from which to choose. Especially when you consider how the internet has increased accessibility to various affinity groups. The question today is not whether to belong to the club but which clubs attract us.

And to answer that question, it helps to have awareness around the groups we already belong to today, formal and otherwise. We’re probably part of more groups than we realize. Maybe we’re in a group that we don’t actually identify with or appreciate the values of. Or maybe we lack this very sense of belongingness we’re describing because we’re amongst the growing number of Americans living in isolation.

It is each of our choices if and how we want to seek out belonging. In a world with limited time and money, we all have to pick the groups that make the most sense for us. As Groucho Marx famously said: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member” — I’m not sure that approach will work for the rest of us, but we can all develop our own criteria for finding the groups that espouse our values.

Ask yourself

Take a moment to reflect.

  • What are some social groups, implicit or explicit, inclusive or exclusive, that you’re a part of?
  • Which of these groups gives you the greatest sense of belonging?
  • Which values do you share with other members of these groups?
  • Does your family feel like a club you’re happy to be a part of?

The world we live in today is unrecognizable from the one our tribal ancestors experienced. But the need to belong is one and the same. Whether we obtain that belongingness through our families or clubs with memberships or groups without, we each satisfy that primal need through the groups that we choose.




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