The future of bowling and belonging

Belonging, 1941. Photo: Bernard Hoffman/LIFE/Getty

A seam running through the last three years of political turbulence is a loss of a sense of belonging. Swaths of disoriented Americans and Europeans feel betrayed and under personal attack, and are lashing out at institutions and leaders who they believe are responsible, or at least failing to do anything about it.

Between the lines: But that's only if you look at the public feeling toward the establishment "out there." If you ask about their own community, people are a lot more content. And what's making them so? In a lot of cases, bowling.

What's happening: Public anger has been the most uniform signal from the raft of U.S. and European elections won by anti-establishment figures since 2016. As sociologists and other researchers have sought reasons why, a common answer has been a sense of loss of accustomed community and stature — a rising number of immigrants, a cratering of jobs from automation and the movement of factories abroad, and a feeling of siege by menacing outside forces.

As we've reported, a number of experts call this tribalism, a feeling of attack on a person's elemental identity. Now, CEOs and academics are looking for how to restore the lost sense of security.

  • As my colleague Erica Pandey wrote, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said earlier this month, "When someone walks into Walmart, I want them to feel, 'I belong here.'"
  • In "The Future of Capitalism," British economist Paul Collier writes that people need a renewed sense of purpose. They lost the one many felt from World War II through the 1970s. Instead, the economic system has beaten them down.
  • The problem, Collier argues, is that the advanced economies have truncated the lessons of Adam Smith, the father of capitalism. They have focused on the invisible hand — self interest — and neglected their need to belong to a job or community. Capitalism fails, he writes, when it is "tainted by relying on the single drive of greed."

The upside of bowling: While McMillon suggests the answer is more trips to Walmart and Collier a rehabilitated sense of purpose, Samuel Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, calls for more visits to traditional local hangouts.

Abrams spent three years conducting a survey of 2,411 people along with the American Enterprise Institute and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

A major finding: If you want to create a sense of belonging, a bowling alley is a great place to start. "They are booming. People want to go somewhere," he told me this morning. "In bowling alleys there is real interaction. There is not texting. You are standing around doing something together."

What is a bowling alley? A shared space where people can gather physically — versus virtually — and connect with their neighbors.

This may sound superficial, but it's not, says Abrams. A survey of people who answered some 60 pages of questions found a correlation between the presence of a library or bowling alley close to a person's residence, and their feeling of community. And when they had that feeling, they tended to speak positively about their neighbors and neighborhood.

  • "When you have [a bowling alley] in your community, the sense of belonging number goes up," Abrams said.
  • This is full circle from Robert Putnam's classic "Bowling Alone," which, as a metaphor for lost community, bemoaned a shrinkage in the number of bowling leagues.

But, but, but: A lot of people — perhaps lacking a nearby bowling alley — are still finding their anchor in partisan politics, according to Bruce Mehlman, a political lobbyist in Washington, DC. "Politics increasingly fills the void previously served by rotary clubs and bowling leagues," he says, "with partisan tribalism replacing communitarianism."

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