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Psychology of Social Connection

Entries from April 2023

Am I In or Out: What it Means to Find a Place to Belong

April 3rd, 2023 · 9 Comments

By: Rachel Zhou and Eliot Min


Everyone likes to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves– a friend group, a house, a college, or even a country. These affiliations can define how others perceive us, as well as how we perceive ourselves. How and why do we wind up in these groups? Considering they make up so much of the way we identify ourselves, it is curious how we often find ourselves bought in, with only the smallest events pushing us in either direction. As we ponder the various groups in our lives — whether they are groups we are in, groups we are excluded from, or groups we find ourselves caught between — what considerations are necessary to critically analyze them not only as categorizing structures, but also as reflections — and extensions — of our identities?

Life’s Like an Activities Fair (Eliot)
College isn’t really about school (eek! sorry Professor). While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the coursework in my four years here, my Harvard experience is defined by the various groups I’ve been a part of outside the classroom. Presently, I’m devoting all my out-of-class time to directing my a cappella group, the Harvard Opportunes. At other junctures, however, I’ve written sports for The Crimson, played Club Squash, and helped found Harvard’s first Product Management organization, Product Lab. 

I still remember the overwhelming feeling of having hundreds of student organizations yelling at me to write my name down at Harvard’s Activities Fair four years ago. There were impossibly many decisions to make that day, and even more once I entered various comp/audition processes. 

As a senior, I’ve had a chance to reflect on why I fretted over these choices so much. On one hand, I just knew that I wanted to do a lot of stuff — going into college, I was universally encouraged by my parents and mentors to join many clubs and try a bunch of new things. Indeed, in line with this advice, studies have shown that extracurricular involvement in college is generally associated with desirable outcomes, including developing a sense of purpose, increasing self-confidence, and forming mature interpersonal relationships (i.e., Hood, 1984; Abrahamowicz, 1988; Martin, 2000).

However, this class has led me to believe I cared so much about my extracurricular selections because of the social implications of joining a group. We’ve discussed how belonging and affiliation are fundamental human needs (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). As college students, it makes sense that this dependency trickles down to the student organizations we choose to engage in. One study shows that, among students participating in extracurricular activities, students with high belonging in college had lower perceived stress and more life satisfaction (Civitci 2015). Importantly, this trend was not found in individuals who did NOT participate in extracurricular activities (Civitci 2015). This is not to say that blindly participating in extracurriculars increases feelings of belonging — rather, the analysis shows that participating in extracurricular activities AND feeling like we belong in them uniquely positions us to live better, fuller, and less stressful lives on campus.

With this in mind, I better understand why I faced the Activities Fair with apprehension in addition to excitement. I think I understood at some level that my decisions would not just determine my membership in a group; rather, I was choosing who I would affiliate with the next four years, and which spaces would lead me to the fullest college experience by making me feel like I belonged. If given a chance to, I would have told freshman me that groups boil down to the people in them and the atmosphere they embody, and urged him to pay attention to which ones he could see himself truly belonging in. Having said that, I’m more than happy with how things turned out. To close out with a lyric from a song the Opportunes sing together every year:

I’ve been lonely, I’ve been cheated,

I’ve been misunderstood

I’ve been washed up, I’ve been put down

Told I’m no good

But with you I belong

‘Cause you helped me be strong

There’s a change in my life

Since you came along

-Change in My Life, obp Rockapella


The In-Betweens Club (Rachel)

Though it’s not a registered student organization, I consider myself to be part of the “in-betweens” club. By that I mean, many of my identities, when tied to different social groups, lie in the “in-betweens”. 

Humans have a fundamental need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Humans also love to belong in groups– and even understanding others thoughts and feelings can be bound to this group membership (Hackel et al 2013). So where does that leave us who fall in the middle? The race of the future”, a theoretical concept posited by philosopher Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi in Practical Idealism, is the idea that in the future, all humans will become mixed-race, rather than be divided by racial groups. While this idea may seem ludicrous, currently, 10.2% of the US population identifies as multiracial, and “in 2020, the White and Some Other Race population category increased by over 1000%” (Coudenhove-Kalergi 2019). The number of multi-racial individuals is significant, and is continuing to rise over time. When looking at the numbers, some may say our racial divides may slowly resolve, as multiracial identities become the norm, and, that the “race of the future” will unite us together. However, the reality is quite different. 

Multiracial people are at the highest risk to die by suicide in comparison to monoracial peers (Wong et al 2012). The population, albeit growing, faces unique struggles, especially related to identity and group membership. These stark contrasts between multiracial and monoracial people indicate a specific vulnerability within this population that has left researchers stumped, but is it really that complicated? 

The experience of being multiracial means one may not feel they truly belong to a singular racial identity, and often is unable to find community within multiracial identity groups. In a study by Franco, Durkee, and McElroy-Hetzel, researchers found that multiracial individuals experience discrimination on a familial level, leading to disruptions in family cohesion and poorer wellbeing (2021). Furthermore, even when multiracial people do identify with a single racial identity, experiences of being invalidated further impact their mental health and well-being, and force them into the role of the “other”, rather than belonging. (Franco et al 2021). Multiracial people, unable to feel “full” membership into one community, and often appearing to be “racially ambiguous” are often invalidated when claiming membership to their communities, and discriminated against by the people closest to them. Small experiences remind one of this experience of being othered, such as being forced to choose the “other” box on demographic surveys, or having to pick and choose different racial categories that may not fit one’s sense of identity. 

When we consider how salient group membership is, and how important it is to feel a sense of belonging, it ultimately makes sense that multiracial have poorer mental health outcomes: it’s hard to belong when there is no perfect box to fit in to. Though each community has diversity within its bounds, the unique experiences that each multiracial individual faces makes it more difficult to truly belong. Being multiracial is constantly a pull in between two (or more) different sides, in between groups, identities, and sometimes, even belonging. Following, is a poem I wrote about my experience, after filling out a survey for a study at Harvard, in 2021. 


I’m tired of having to check the box for other.

I’m tired of having to choose between my father and my mother

Are you hispanic/latino? No.

Check the box marking your race: [ ] White [ ] Black [ ] American Indian/Or Alaska Native [ ] Asian or Pacific Islander [ ] “Some other race”

Some other race?

What does it mean for every person whose parents don’t have the same face to be “some” other?

Am I the same as someone who grew up half-black? 

I’ve never been afraid of having a bullet lodged in my back. 

Always an other.

If you’re lucky, you can check multiple boxes.

But why is– 

why is my entire racial identity and understanding 

shoved into the markings of these boxes?

Always an other, never one box. 

Always an other, never my own box. 

How do I explain that I’ve never felt at home in one box or another, that my own understanding is too complicated to summarize in a check-box

What does it mean for people to look at me and think that I’m hispanic, to get too confused to call me the right racial slurs, to not be able to pronounce my last name, trapped in my own paradox

other, other, other.

we other people we don’t understand but why is there not even an attempt to understand us others

what does it mean to be an other?

i’m tired of these casual polls and misunderstandings

being forced to choose, the form demanding

white privilege or model minority?

i’ve spent years trying to justify that i’m asian enough, that my culture is mine, that i’m truly one of my people, that our stories align

but at the end of the day

on every survey

i’m an other. 

~ rz (2021)



Abrahamowicz, D. (1988). College involvement, perceptions, and satisfaction: A study of membership in student organizations. Journal of College Student Development, 29, 233–238. 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529

Bureau, U. C. (n.d.). 2020 Census Illuminates Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Country. Census.Gov. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from

Çivitci, A. (2015). Perceived stress and life satisfaction in college students: Belonging and extracurricular participation as moderators. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 205, 271-281.

Coudenhove-Kalergi, R. (2019). Practical Idealism: The Kalergi Plan to destroy European peoples (D. Ekmektsis, Trans.). Omnia Veritas Ltd.

Franco, M., Durkee, M., & McElroy-Heltzel, S. (2021). Discrimination comes in layers: Dimensions of discrimination and mental health for multiracial people. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 27, 343–353.

Hackel, L. M., Looser, C. E., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2014). Group membership alters the threshold for mind perception: The role of social identity, collective identification, and intergroup threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 52, 15-23.

Hood, A. B. (1984). Student development: Does participation affect growth? Bulletin of the Association of College Unions-International, 54, 16–19.

Martin, L. M. (2000). The relationship of college experiences to psychosocial outcomes in students. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 294–303. 

Wong, S. S., Sugimoto-Matsuda, J. J., Chang, J. Y., & Hishinuma, E. S. (2012). Ethnic Differences in Risk Factors For Suicide Among American High School Students, 2009: The Vulnerability of Multiracial and Pacific Islander Adolescents. Archives of Suicide Research, 16(2), 159–173.


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