On Homecoming and Belonging.

By: Sebastian Junger

Published: 2016

Read: 2019


Tribal behavior is an evolved human trait. Humans have a need to belong, to be part of a larger whole. Solidarity, making sacrifices and acting in the group’s best interest make particular sense when communities face a crisis (such as war) and, even under stressful conditions, may contribute to a person’s well-being and provide a sense of meaning.

People’s lives seemingly have more purpose in times of crisis leading to fewer mental health issues.

The book’s central argument is that as modern society faces less crises (or these crises only occur in isolated parts of the community), self-interest starts to outweigh the group’s interests and tight-knit communities are lost, resulting in a slew of societal issues (less sense of belonging, less purpose, higher incidences of mental illness, depression, suicides, etc.).

Worth Reading:

An interesting, short, well-written book that asks a lot of tough questions and highlights some important issues. Junger is a war reporter and this narrows the scope and perspective of his book.

This is not a book that aims for an in-depth investigation of tribes and tribal behavior, an investigation of whether there is too much or not enough tribalism, the downsides to tribal behavior (polarization, biases, etc.), which types of tribal behavior are more adaptive than others, what is the importance of tribe cohesion and scale, etc.

Instead this book spots an illness (a loss of community, well-being and purpose), determines what may cause this illness (tribes are disappearing) and then struggles with its implications (vets longing for the days of war, war reporters wanting to go back and cover other wars, and generally, that there may be a net gain in well-being in times of crisis).

While the book correctly observes that a shared crisis or common enemy strengthens group cohesion and can even unite previously divided groups (see also “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society“), solutions associated with a return to crisis or finding other common enemies are not immediately helpful or even replicable as practical answers on how to restore well-being and purpose in daily life.

It may be more productive to look at the same examples of humans striving in war/crisis situations and abstract other, more replicable, lessons.

  • Cooperation matters.
    • Solidarity and making sacrifices are aspects of knowing how to play the social game.
    • Implication: be a good team player, understand the rules of reciprocity and adjust your behavior accordingly.
  • Survival matters.
    • There is no real difference between self interest and group interest. In crisis situations, self-interest (survival) sometimes aligns with group interest.
    • Implication: understand what it takes to stay in the game and avoid risk of ruin in everyday life by aligning yourself accordingly.
  • Productive skills matters.
    • A crisis may happen to reveal certain skills that are immediately rewarding. Generally, having skills that are rewarded in this manner matters. 
    • Implication: develop skills that are similarly contributive so you have something to offer in every day life (that will be rewarded).
  • Cohesion matters.
    • Smaller, like-minded groups are more effective and efficient in crisis situations.
    • Implication: if you need to cooperate, it’s probably easier to do so in smaller groups.

In short, be a good team player, stay in the game, develop productive skills, work in small groups.

Whether or not (productive) tribes form may become irrelevant using this perspective. From pro-social behavior, productive types of social order can arise, sometimes taking the form of “tribes”. While tribes may be a source of pleasure or fun and some people may be more or less inclined to be a part of them, and perhaps they even answer an innate human desire for belonging (in the sense that they emerged from certain evolving human tendencies), tribes in and of themselves may not be a necessary factor for human well-being and finding purpose.

Practical Takeaways:

  • Whether you are in a crisis situation or not, be a good team player, stay in the game, develop productive skills, work in small groups.


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