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Author Interview: The Psychology of Belonging

Posted on: October 13, 2020

How can we sustain lasting human connections?


The Psychology of Belonging explores a concept that matters dearly in a world of increasing lonliness and social isolation: belonging. What does it mean to belong, and what is the benefit of understanding how it works at a conceptual level?

The author of the book, Kelly-Ann Allen, was kind enough to spend time answering some of the most pressing questions on the topc of belonging, and how her new book is written to address these issues.


1. What motivated you to write about belonging?

There is a joke that goes: “What is a pirate’s favourite letter? You would think it was an R, but actually his heart will always belong to the C”. This encapsulates belonging for me. A sense of belonging can be surprising, unexpected, and yet represent a deeply emotional connection not always related to other people. My late father used to refer to his birth country of Fiji as Mai Fiji: mai in Fijian meaning “mine” and in Hindi meaning “mother”, both representing his attachment and sense of belonging to the land. I was motivated to write about belonging because it is a powerful and common need that we all share.

2. You are codirector and founder of the International Belonging Research Laboratory, can you tell us about your research into belonging? What are you working on now?

The Belonging Lab is a research collaborative of passionate researchers. The purpose of the lab is to raise awareness about the science of belonging and translate it to everyday good. Right now, we are working on an international school belonging project. We know that belonging is important for the mental and physical health of students as well as their wellbeing, but now we want to find out what we can do about it. Driven by the fact that 1 in 3 students don’t feel a sense of belonging to school (globally), we want to ask students directly – what can your teachers and school leaders do to help make your school a place to belong?

My research team recently partnered with the Melbourne Children’s Research Institute’s Australian Temperament Project, which is Australia’s oldest longitudinal database. Here we get to track the long-term outcomes of belonging over three generations.  We now know, through our preliminary analysis, that a sense of belonging to school at 15 years of age can predict mental health outcomes well into adulthood –15 years later.


3. Your book explores why feeling like we belong is important throughout our lives. Do you think it has greater importance during the global pandemic than it did before?

I don’t think belonging was more or less important during COVID-19, but it may have reminded  people just how important it was to them. Especially when the opportunities to connect with others started to diminish and the groups, activities, and events that offered a predictable sense of meaning and belonging (including time spent with family) were restricted.

Susan Carland wrote a beautiful piece during the pandemic about the lost lasts, the small milestones of childhood that slip away from us. We only notice them when they have gone, like the last time your child was small enough to be carried on your hip, or the last time they were able to fit within the fold-out chair on a supermarket trolley. Our sense of belonging during the pandemic may have been like the lost lasts, we only noticed it once it was threatened or gone. This could have been one reason why we saw rainbow trails pop up, teddy bear hunts appear and Spoonvilles in almost every suburb. Our motivation to belong and connect with others is so strong that we are constantly recreating new ways to belong when old ways are taken away. 


4. Does technology enhance opportunities for belonging, or is it detrimental?

The research is surprisingly mixed and appears dependent on 1. Who is using it and 2. How it is being used. One things we can anecdotally say is that technology has triumphed during COVID-19 in offering opportunities to belong during lockdown. Technology has allowed students to stay connected to school and workers to stay connected to work. Over Facetime, people have mourned, celebrated, and socialised. It might not have felt the same as in person, but without technology there would been an undisputed void.


5. Chapter 6 is called ‘Belonging Bad’ – I am intrigued! Can you explain what you cover in this chapter?

Belonging Bad was a play on words, inspired by the crime/drama series, Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is a colloquialism that means turning to a life of crime. Belonging bad represents the alternative spheres of belonging that people may choose that may not meet social standards or expectations. When people are unable to find healthy pro-social ways to belong they will look for it elsewhere. This chapter talks about the motivations behind radicalisation, street gangs, cults, riots and racism. Understanding our need to belong could be the first step to tackling these big social issues.

This year there has been much debate around diversity and inclusion – but I do wonder how much these things matter if people don’t actually feel like they belong?