After months of working on my belonging project here in my fourth country, I’ve realized that belonging is fundamental to finding meaning in life. It’s such a basic human need that it pops up everywhere, even in my IQ, and yours. Yet in this age of individualism and exclusion we ignore the proven benefits of belonging. It’s like we’re afraid to belong or mention a desire to belong because that would be going against — ironically — everything society tells us.

But belonging can make us smarter.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about any old belonging where we compromise who we really are and try to fit in, but true belonging where diversity flourishes, we’re accepted with our flaws and challenged to become wiser people.


”The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates

Teachers and educators understand the importance of belonging. Early childhood education in Australia focuses on belonging as one of three key components to teach children how to connect and contribute to society through empathy, fairness and respect.

So why do the rest of us scrunch up any need to belong and hide it away inside when studies have proven belonging makes us smarter?

If I feel I don’t belong in Australia — which is what this blog is all about — this could turn into self-doubt and undermine my motivation, expectations and even intellectual or academic performance. Or maybe it already has?

According to Annie Murphy Paul, a US author specialized in learning, belonging is crucial for learning. Stereotypes, judgments and perceived social or physical threats influence our intellectual abilities, she says, citing several studies, on her blog and in an article for The New York Times. She points us towards a US study where students who took an IQ test after they were told they would be loveless and friendless in the future, scored significantly lower than they did on an earlier IQ test.


And over at Stanford University, social psychologist Gregory Walton seems just as fascinated with understanding belonging as I am. He’s led several studies over the past decade which have shown academic performance is linked to belonging.

In Walton’s ”social belonging intervention”, black and white students in first year college wrote about the experiences of older students who had transitioned from feelings of not belonging to belonging at college. Walton wanted the students to learn that feelings of not belonging were temporary, normal and common among all ethnicities. By the  third year of college, the grade point average of black students in the study had risen enough to halve the achievement gap with white students. (It had little effect on white students who were dominant on campus.)

Here’s more interesting research: When Walton and others looked at the psychological threat of widely-known stereotypes to women and ethnic minorities, he found that once the stereotypes were removed women and minorities performed better than men and non minorities with the same prior test scores.

Now this is all happening in the relatively safe atmosphere of university. It’s more difficult to find a sense of belonging once we start working and moving cities or countries. So just much how are we letting unconscious feelings of not-belonging undermine our intelligence and even affect our judgement?

How much are immigrants, refugees and even serial migrants from first world countries like me, working below our full potential?

That brings me back to my opening question. If I don’t feel I belong here, is this changing who I am, who I can become and my ability to find meaning in life?

In a recent post Maria Popova of Brain Pickings talked about the ”ladder of understanding”, an idea that she presented to the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit:

”At its base is a piece of information, which simply tells us some basic fact about the world. Above that is knowledge — the understanding of how different bits of information fit together to reveal some truth about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of correlation and interpretation. At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework about what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.”

While Popova focused on how storytelling can help us find meaning in a world overwhelmed by facts, I want to focus on what we need to move up Popova’s Ladder.

We need a sense of true belonging. We can’t move from facts to knowledge to, hopefully, wisdom without it. Not only because belonging is crucial to learning but because we need positive emotions to see the many choices open to us. Negative emotions restrict the number of choices our brain can see (How writing makes you feel better) and feelings like loneliness decrease the brain’s capacity for empathy (Let’s make belonging contagious). We can’t form the moral framework that Popova talks about without empathy, or understanding what others feel.

So if we are to become more knowledgeable and move towards wisdom we need to develop empathy and to embrace true belonging.

This has me questioning my own position.

If I can’t find belonging in Australia, it must come from a place inside me, a touchstone I carry with me, across the geography of my identity.