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Psychology of Social Connection

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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9 responses so far ↓

  • Elle // Apr 4th 2023 at 8:55 am

    Eliot and Rachel, I really appreciated your willingness to share your personal perspective and experience in navigating social groups. Eliot, your words of advice as a senior to seek out people in order to feel belongingness is great perspective. I have found a dichotomy in extracurriculars at Harvard: some sign up for a ton of clubs and commit hours of their free time to groups for the sole purpose of adding bullet points to their resume. Others join extracurricular activities and clubs because they simply enjoy those groups, either for their interest or the people involved. Eliot defined success and desirable outcomes as “including developing a sense of purpose, increasing self-confidence, and forming mature interpersonal relationships.” I think that having this perspective as the core motivation for joining clubs is the best mindset to get the most out of these organizations. At the end of the day, happiness is not found in the success of a high paying job, but who you surround yourself with. Going in with the intent of belongingness and to affiliate reaps higher rewards than a filled resume, which Eliot highlighted beautifully in his personal anecdote.
    Rachel, I didn’t know you were a poet! Thank you so much for being open to sharing your personal experience with struggling to find belongingness in racial identity. Rachel described being forced into a role of the “other” rather than feeling a true sense of belonging through evidence of the effects of discrimination, and the mental health consequences of not being able to fully identify. I understand that I am privileged in this regard, and want to learn more about how this issue could be socially addressed. The “race of the future” was especially interesting to me, and I wonder how that will change the future structure of the “boxes” that Rachel describes.

  • Wendy C. // Apr 4th 2023 at 9:25 am

    This post was so well-written and engaging! I enjoyed reading both of you guys’ personal experiences and perspectives. Eliot – thank you for sharing your experience with groups and extracurriculars; I agree 100% that a sense of belonging is crucial in order for a community to feel like home or provide social satisfaction; Otherwise, it may just feel like an extra burden piled on top of all your other responsibilities. The song from the Opportunes was sweet to read and very fitting for this topic! Rachel – thank you for sharing your story with us and for shedding light on the topic of multiracial people. The concept of Practical Idealism leading up to your main idea was interesting to read and, agreed, also somewhat absurd given the existing level of diversity which is additionally lacking in many countries. It seems to me that a common theme with group membership and belonging is that full commitment is favored over mix or intersectionality; anything “in-between,” as you highlighted, being often overlooked or ignored. Given that group bonds seem to thrive on similarity and cohesion, which can create in-group bias and competitiveness, one can imagine that anyone who so much as shares certain commonalities with a social out-group is seen as untrustworthy, a threat, and/or simply disruptive to the group’s dynamic. Your poem was very poignant and thought-provoking; the theme of the “other” box on surveys is something that I will keep thinking about, especially since I’m currently collecting survey data for some of my classes’ research projects and want to do research as a whole in my career. Would creating a completely different checkbox that accounts for racial mix eliminate the feeling of otherness, or would it perpetuate it further due to its separate nature? Moreover, it seems to me that there are some very specific markers for what it means to be a part of certain groups which can make it very difficult for those in-between who ultimately decide to choose or commit to one identity; for example, culture is especially important for many, but there’s also this sense of “you’re either a part of it or you’re not” or “you were either born into it or you weren’t and it cannot be assimilated” even if somebody takes the time to learn it. It makes me think back to the study in which participants drew the same face with different features depending on the label they were given. I think it highlights the limit that identity labels impose on our human experience, perceptions, and ability to get along with those to whom we may be very similar but who might ultimately not accept us due to restricting arbitrarily designed constructs.

  • Karley Merkley // Apr 4th 2023 at 11:01 am

    Reading through Eliots part it was so relatable how we are so much more than just students at Harvard. I feel like when I say that at home people automatically assume one of two things; “what sport helped you get in” or “ you’re too smart bye” type of vibe. Even though they don’t assume things about themselves they assume things about me. I think this relates to outgroup homogeneity in the sense that they assume that I must play a sport because they do not think I could get in alone or they think i’m too smart and they do not want to associate.

    Furthermore, do you have any other suggestions about activities fair? What could the college do instead? I find that people usually drop a lot of clubs after freshman year

    While reading Rachel’s part, it really showed me a side of things that I do not really get exposed to with scientific studies and with personal experience — so that you for this. I am wondering what can be done to increase sense of belonging in multi-racial individuals? How can we get over the automatic processes in our brain? More importantly how can this be done at a university level? Your poem was very eye-opening and touching and I’m sorry you felt that way and/or still do feel this way, I can’t imagine what that feels like. All in all, I think something needs to be done about the biases and automatic perceptions people have.

  • Evan Tingler // Apr 4th 2023 at 11:43 am

    I really appreciated Eliot’s section “Life’s Like an Activities Fair.” It really got me thinking about my sense of identity on campus and how it has shaped my experience here. My primary social group is within the water polo team. Joining the team was a commitment I made before I ever set foot on campus. I was drawn in by the coaches and the older people on the team, but most of all, I was drawn by the other girls in my recruiting class. Flash forward 5 years and all of my teammates are my best friends, and I dedicate 20+ hours during weekdays and the entirety of my weekends at practice/games with these people. This time commitment and sense of built-in community led me not to seek out joining other groups on campus, which has tentatively been a regret of mine. But, after learning more about this week’s topic and reading this blog, I question the impact of being a member of one primary group versus many groups on one’s sense of belonging. Say one person REALLY values one group and feels an immense sense of belonging and another person REALLY values multiple groups and feels an immense sense of belonging in each – how does this impact social identity? Are more associations better than one, or does it not matter?

    Rachel’s section was such a valuable and illuminating read. I was surprised to learn that multiracial people are at the highest risk to commit suicide. However, it makes a lot of sense with the “in-between” idea of not feeling like they fully belong in one racial identity group and the overwhelming invalidation they feel in their communities. Additionally, I learned how multiracial conflict can extend into a family setting and have direct impacts on mental health and well-being. I am wondering how such dynamics can be overcome. I am sure specialized family therapies exist to explore uniting complex identities, and I am wondering what this might look like in practice. And, WOW, just wow… Rachel, the poem you wrote is extremely powerful and gave me chills. Your experience is so valid, and I thank you so much for sharing such a vulnerable piece with us. <3

  • Cassie Sousa // Apr 4th 2023 at 4:53 pm

    First, thank you both for writing this wonderfully thoughtful and intimate piece about belonging. Eliot, I can completely relate to your section in that I also think that the clubs and organizations I have chosen to become a part of on campus have shaped my self-esteem and sense of belonging, both on campus and in the world more generally. Also, your section makes me think about the clubs and organizations I haven’t been a part of — by choice or by exclusion — which, then, leads me to consider the exclusivity of many clubs and organizations on campus. Given that many students may base their sense of belonging on the clubs they are (or aren’t) apart of, what does it mean for clubs to turn some students away for not being “good enough” in some respect? More specifically, what does it mean for a student at Harvard, for example, to get into the College (which is highly selective) but not get into some of its student-run clubs and organizations? In what ways does this internal exclusivity undermine a student’s sense of belonging at Harvard? Rachel, I think your section speaks a bit to these questions I raise about exclusivity and why it’s important to consider students who have been rejected from certain spaces on campus as well as students who don’t feel as though they really fit into any specific on-campus group. These issues also beg the questions: what can be done to make sure that all students feel like they can belong on campus? Do we add more clubs and organizations? Do we limit, or even eliminate, barriers which keep students from joining certain clubs and organizations (e.g., comping processes or auditions)?

  • Pomai // Apr 5th 2023 at 10:09 am

    Rachel and Eliot, this was a wonderful piece to read with lots of insights. Thank you for sharing. I like how you open with breaking down our group relationships to in/excluded/between groups. That’s a very clear-cut way to divide our group experiences, and it makes me wonder if our identities would be tied as strongly to our groups if we weren’t excluded from other groups. In other words, is it our exclusion from certain groups that makes us so committed to our in-groups? (Similar to the can you truly be happy without sadness argument). For instance, in a world of no exclusion, perhaps there’d be no incentive to be as close to our in-groups to the point where in-groups wouldn’t even exist. People tend to form groups because of the social need to belong, so if there were no groups that we were excluded from (e.g., if there were no X racial affinity groups, no Y cultural groups, no Z sports groups), then there wouldn’t be as strong of a driving factor that pulls certain people together. Thus, exclusion is a powerful feeling that unites people who are excluded against.

    On Eliot’s point of choosing groups, I wonder if the reason freshmen feel less of a sense of belonging than upperclassmen is because they split themselves between too many groups so that their identity feels more divided and less connected to those in their in-groups. As a freshman, you’re faced with countless options, and many freshmen tend to dive into everything they possibly can until eventually certain things fall away. Oftentimes what’s left are the core groups that people stay with for the rest of their time at college. But sometimes people’s preferences change, and their groups end up shifting. I’ve always been curious as to what drives these initial interests and these subsequent changes in preferences. People may switch their groups because they don’t feel a sense of belonging, or because they feel they are missing a crucial part of themselves, or simply because they want to explore something new. So, are people really choosing groups because they are searching for a sense of belonging? In my case, I chose my groups not because I liked the people and wanted to belong there; I chose my groups based on personal interests (i.e., things I already liked to do and things I wanted to learn how to do). In fact, the social aspect of joining the groups never even crossed my mind and I even joined some groups where I didn’t feel (and still don’t feel) a strong connection with anyone. I had a great friend group that I loved, so for me joining sports teams/other groups weren’t about trying to belong nor trying to find a shared identity; it was just simply about finding an outlet for me to do the things I wanted to do. In this sense, maybe being a part of groups in college serves different purposes for different people: some may join groups as a way to form social ties while others may join groups with their own goals in mind. For people who feel socially connected to their groups, that could greatly impact their sense of belonging at college. But for people who join groups for reasons beyond the social aspect, perhaps they view these groups not as part of their own identity but as a phase in which they are exploring interests that don’t truly define them.

    On Rachel’s point of being stuck between groups, it’s interesting because I just had a conversation at dinner with some friends about being multi-racial. I agree that it’s hard to feel a strong connection to any one racial group because I identify as more than one race. And there were often times growing up when I refused to identify with some of my races because they just didn’t feel like they represented who I was as a person. However, I don’t feel that the lack of connection/full solidarity with any one of my races prevents me from feeling a sense of belonging. If anything, I feel like I belong even more because I can switch between any of my races and be accepted in all areas. However, not everyone feels this way, which I think largely depends on where people grew up. Growing up in Hawaii, which has so many mixed-race people, I honestly rarely paid attention to race, so I’ve always felt like I belonged because everyone has been mixed like me. So, if we could find a way to enable people to grow up in more mixed communities, that may help people feel that they are more than just an “other.”

  • Ella // Apr 5th 2023 at 2:38 pm

    – [ ] I really appreciated the vulnerability embedded in both of these discussion posts. Eliot, your inclusion of Change (I am a fellow Opportune, for reference) into your discussion of the importance of extracurricular groups and the nourishing communities they can provide. The sentimental attachment that each member of our group has to this song as reminiscent of the family nature of the Opportunes only goes to further exemplify your point that it is not just the extracurricular activity itself that is important, but the feeling of belongingness that we are able to attain from them. Rachel, I cannot tell you how much I appreciated the intimacy of your poem, and overall the attention you are drawing in this blog post to such an important – and often overlooked – aspect of group identity: the feeling that can rise where, by “belonging” to many, one may struggle to feel truly accepted and at home in any particular group, which can lead to feelings of isolation. I found the statistic that multiracial people are at the highest risk of dying by suicide devastating, and I appreciated your drawing attention to this as a problem that will only increase with the number of multiracial individuals rising over time. I so enjoyed the poem you shared with us, and I appreciate how raw and vulnerable it is. I so appreciate the care and authenticity that you both used to talk about such an important topic.

  • Andrea // Apr 5th 2023 at 9:19 pm

    First of all, I’d like to say thank you to both Eliot and Rachel for your reflective and vulnerable blog posts – I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Before reading this post, I was unaware of the potential mediation of belonging that leads to high suicide rates in those from multiracial backgrounds. I suppose this can be intuitive though, since I would hypothesize that if one feels a decreased sense of belonging in a community then they may have a low sense of self-worth and feel less included and needed (which could lead to increased suicide rates). I’d be curious to see what others think may mediate this relationship!
    I found Eliot’s post to be quite relatable, and can remember the apprehension I felt about finding welcoming and accepting communities when I came to Harvard. In search of communities where I felt wanted and accepted, I think I came across a recurrent dichotomous experience in which I felt torn between feeling wanted by an organization but not entirely interested in the org’s values or mission, and vice versa. Thus, my sense of belonging in these spaces was split. For example, there was a public service organization on campus whose mission and vision and values I highly aligned with, but I did not necessarily feel welcomed by current members. In this case the work was fulfilling and I felt like I identified with the organization, but never really felt like I became part of the core community of the org, thus I simultaneously felt like I did and did not belong. Of course, there were organizations where all of these things aligned and my sense of belonging increased exponentially, but I feel like in some cases, more than just people can hinder belonging.

  • Jessica // Apr 6th 2023 at 1:12 am

    Rachel and Eliot, I absolutely loved this blog post. You were both so open about your life & Harvard experience and tied is so well to this week’s themes and the broader themes of this class. It’s super powerful that you both tied the need to belong to your individual experiences. Even though we may recognize the social implications of a lot of our behaviors, especially when it comes to the groups that we join and identities we hold, seeing the main theme of Baumeister’s paper tied to real-world experience was eye-opening. Thank you both for sharing your thoughts on social identity.

    Eliot, your point about clubs being about affiliation, and not just membership, was so interesting. I haven’t really thought about that difference before. I guess the idea that you are who you hang out with has always been in my mind, but the concept of joining a group because of the social identity associated with it is novel!

    Rachel, I love your poem and 100% resonated with it. We don’t belong! Harvard is one of many places where that rings true in group dynamics. No matter how diverse a place claims to be, groups form, identities define who we are, and ostracization is a consequence of that pattern. Your point that the way we define ourselves is important to our sense of belonging was so powerful.

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