Have you ever felt invisible? Have you ever needed help, but didn’t want to ask for it, and a stream of strangers stepped around you like you were contagious?

We all feel niggling moments of marginalization, even if we pretend not to. Belonging is such an important part of our primitive brains, that we feel uncomfortable when it’s not there. We may not want to admit it, but in this fractured world, we’re all searching for a small way to belong.

We can do something.

One of the easiest, smallest bridges to our own belonging is to offer to help someone else.

Studies have shown that people who are kind towards others, like those who do volunteer work, live longer lives, are happier and have less anxiety and depression. Researchers say these people get a ‘’helpers high’’ from, well, helping people. That means after they’ve helped someone endorphins flood their brain so they feel stronger, more energetic, and calmer, and have a higher sense of self worth. Even the Dalai Lama says that working to help others is ‘’selfish altruism’’.

Research has also found that when you help someone, it lights up the the same area of your brain that responds to pleasures like sex or food. Pretty cool, right?

This is why breaking down barriers of detachment and building your compassion is good for you and good for your belonging.

It’s no coincidence that groups of people who feel marginalised tend to focus on belonging: Autism Spectrum Australia titled their latest report We Belong Too (It showed teenagers with Autism suffer from bullying, loneliness and anxiety.); Act-Belong-Commit was set up in Western Australia to help people overcome and prevent mental health problems and to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. There are articles and books on Muslim identities and ideas of belonging.

These people don’t just feel marginalized. They are marginalized.

One small act can start to change this and it’ll put a bounce in your step too.

Henry sad at door

This morning on my run through the clumsy weight of humid Brisbane air, I saw marginalization in action.

From a distance I could make out a figure leaning against a telephone pole. Commuters walk by the slumped person. I crossed the road to run towards her and make sure she was ok. Her left arm was lifted above her shoulders, pressing up against the rough wood of the pole. The weight of her head rested on that forearm. Her light-weight black trousers and a dark long-sleeved shirt seemed to have more power and weight than her slight frame.

I stepped onto the wet grass of the footpath in front of her.

”Are you all right?’’

She lifted her head, a weary, lined face, and blue eyes looked back at me.

”I feel nauseous.’’  She started heaving as she spoke and pulled a dehydrated hand to her lips. Thin knuckled fingers hesitated, moving between covering her mouth and wiping away tears. Her demeanor reminded me of my nonagenarian mother-in-law, although this woman must have been decades younger.

”I need to make a phone call,’’ she said.

She made an attempt to push back her short straight hair the colour of a dappled pony as if organizing her fringe would fix everything else. She tried to slip the shoulder strap of the brightly coloured canvas bag off her shoulder, but started heaving under the exertion.

A man in a bright white shirt and pressed gray trousers turned to stare at us — this unlikely couple of sweaty jogger and spindly pole-leaner — as he walked by. Our eyes met for an instant and he looked away.

Now see that man could have had a little `sex’ hit on his way to work, a little endorphin pump, a natural high. If only he had stopped to help.

In our fractured world, the need to belong is everywhere. And the need to help is all around us. Blatantly. Shouting at us. We all have moments of weakness. We will all have times when we need the help of a stranger.

We don’t need to join a charity or a group to belong. We don’t need to sign up to anything or pay any money.

We just need to become less detached from the world around us and more involved.

And we will benefit.

What We Get When We Give, by Christine L Carter PhD, Psychology Today

Helpers High, Great Good Science Centre