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Wellbeing at work, and in life: how can we better humanise the systems we live, work and play in?

At TRA, we track emerging and dominant cultural shifts. One of these cultural currents, Being human, reflects the relationship of our individual wellbeing to our social, societal and ecological wellbeing. It takes our popular preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness, positive psychology and wellbeing and locates it within current economic, political and societal structures – those which create the conditions for us to flourish or falter.

The massive cultural shift to improving one’s wellbeing has enhanced the quality of life of a great many people. However, the rise of wellbeing may in part be due to its being a coping mechanism that addresses symptoms of a societal unwellness rather than its causes.

Social unwellness increasingly dominates discussions of wellbeing today. Anxiety and depression are at reported epidemic levels. In 2018, New Zealand had the highest rates of suicide since records began. Academics report that young men prefer the world of gaming, where they feel more in control. Social isolation, for the elderly in particular, is an acute worry. Our capacity to empathise is being altered by the anonymity of online that allows for trolling and faceless rejection by messaging and texts. Cyber-bullying is harming our school children. People metres away from each other prefer to introduce themselves via dating apps. On-demand entertainment and deliveries allow us to coccoon ourselves at home. We’re time poor and highly pressured. Traditional centres of community, like church and sports clubs, are disappearing. And all of this is tied to a climate of social inequity, extreme ideological and political polarity, fears of planetary collapse and economic uncertainty. The list gets longer and shriller.

The myth of the ‘rational economic man’

Much of our and our planet’s unwellness stems from living in a political, economic and societal framework that hasn’t factored human beings, their needs and their rights into it.

Economist Kate Raworth, author of “Doughnut Economics,” principles for 21st century economics founded on ensuring wellbeing and human rights within ecological boundaries, argues that “the most dangerous stories at the heart of 20th-century economics is the depiction of humanity as ‘rational economic man’ – a self-interested, money-driven being”, when we are, in fact, social, adaptable beings.

While the notion of rational economic man is outdated, he is not absent even from our more contemporary and enlightened notions of wellbeing. For many years, the dominant cultural narrative of wellbeing has been the optimised self: optimisation of body, mind and consciousness to maximise what we can enjoy and achieve in life. This holistic understanding of wellbeing encompassses cognitive, emotional, social and natural dimensions. You could say that optimising yourself gives you a competitive advantage in modern day life. For example, the weller you are, the more energy you have, the better you can deal with stress, the better relationships you have, the clearer the mind and so on. It’s survival of the fittest in a holistic sense, but on a highly competitive, more uneven and less distributive playing field than the savannah.

It’s true that some wellbeing practices can be quite inward-looking and self-oriented (communities formed around sports, health and wellbeing practices are counter-examples, however). Critics of “McMindfulness” practiced today argue that mindfulness is often used, intentionally or not, “for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes,” counter to its Buddhist and Abrahamic teachings. “McMindfulness practices psychologise and medicalise social problems. Rather than a way to attain awakening toward universal love, it has become a means of “self-regulation and personal control over emotions.” Its wide appeal amongst corporations is also criticised as a tool for “subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and … keeping attention focused on institutional goals.”

Whatever the context, benefits of meditation and quiet for the individual would be the same. The point is that we need to start thinking more about social wellness, our own and others’.

It’s human nature to be both self-interested and selfless

We are a self-interested species. But we are also the most co-operative species on the planet, motivated by the drive for social connection. When Professor of bio-behavioural sciences at UCLA Matthew Lieberman’s team conducted neuro-imaging experiments on the effects of co-operation, they discovered that the reward centre of the brain lights up when people co-operate. They also found that social rejection activates the same area in the brain as physical pain, illustrating how harmful social disconnection can be. Their conclusion was that we are hardwired for both self-interest and interest in the welfare of others.

That we are innately social creatures whose capacity for cooperation separates us from apes has been well-researched. The Dunedin Study, which followed the lives of 1037 babies born in the early 1970s from birth to adulthood, found that positive social relationships in childhood and adolescence are key to adult wellbeing. Similarly, research into the Blue Zones, the five geographic regions known for the longevity of their inhabitants, found that strong physical relationships are key to living longer. Eric Klinenburg’s “social autopsy” of over 700 deaths in Chicago’s 1995 heatwave found that neighbourhoods with stronger social networks had fewer casualties.

In short, feeling belonging, safety, security, trust and intimacy with others helps us thrive. This has implications for every industry and profession –­ from how we interact to how we design, build and access our communities, cities and transport systems, to what our workplaces are like, to how we connect across cultures.

Real world connecting

New Zealand’s leading the world in addressing wellbeing on a national scale with its wellbeing budget. But what can the everyday person do today? Around the world, experts say we need to get better at social connection. Real world connecting.

It’s the little things

We can start by nurturing the relationships we already have. Little actions like complimenting people, expressing gratitude and telling as many people as you can that you love them, random texts, silly messages, check-ins are all little actions that add up to feeling more positive emotions and life satisfaction. “A couple of minutes every day — the payoff is small at first, and then it’s immense,” writes clinical professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business Scott Galloway in his book “The Algebra of Happiness.”

Weak ties

Small talk with “weak ties” makes us happier, too. Weak ties may be other parents you see at the park, your local coffee barista, people at work, people in sports teams, gym buddies or fellow yogis. Interactions, small talk, selfless little actions shared with weak ties are said to not only help us to feel less lonely and more connected, they also widen our perspectives, social circles, help us to feel more connected to other social groups and help us to be more empathetic.

Giving back

Liebermann’s research also showed that we get more happiness from other’s happiness than from our own, whether it’s simply sharing lollies or going out and volunteering. From an effective altruism perspective, the best way to give back may be to get a well-paying job and donate to organisations that can make the most impact with your money. However, studies show that people get more joy out of seeing, or at least being closer to the tangible impact their giving has.

Should you be inspired, below are some organisations with which you can volunteer your time and skills (volunteering in New Zealand has declined significantly – as much as 42% between 2004 and 2013 – with time paucity cited as a major factor. To attract more people, organisations are adapting their volunteer activities to be more short term and project-oriented rather than requiring long term committment).





Being humans at work

Business publications from Forbes to Harvard Business Review advocate for the need for human leadership, whether it’s practising empathy or, as “Against Empathy” author Paul Bloom suggests, practising MSC leadership: mindfulness (M), selflessness (S) and compassion (C). And many businesses are striving to nurture a collaborative and psychologically safe environment where creativity and innovation thrives and people feel a sense of belonging and purpose.

For many, their job is intricately linked to identity, self-worth and sense of belonging. Looking towards the future, the uncertainty of a future disrupted by AI and robots looms large. Are we looking at new types of work or mass unemployment? Social support and the ability to feel a sense of community, identity and belonging in ways not dependent on work may become even more important.

Being humans will save the planet

The essence of the Doughnut: a social foundation of wellbeing that no one should fall below, and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond. Between the two lies a safe and just space for all. 

Raworth calls her 21st century ideas about econmics Doughnut Economics. One of the key shifts in thinking we need to embrace is that of from rational economic man to fair and social adaptable humans.” Another tenet of the Doughnut Economy is that of a distributive economy – designing economies to be far more distributive of the wealth and value they generate – of which peer-to-peer networks, open source systems and collaborative knowledge commons are a part. Raworth advocates for investment into civic organisations such as co-operative societies, student groups, innovation hubs and neighbourhood associations not only because they cater to human needs for community and belonging but also “because their interconnections turn into the very nodes that bring such peer-to-peer networks alive.” The distributive economy will need humans to be creative, innovative and collaborative but also generous and open.

Whether shifting to a whole new economic paradigm that is just, fair and ecologically regenerative or dealing with the fallout out climate crisis, the most human of our human attributes will be tested. For example, climate crisis-related migration (due to economic and political-related issues, natural disasters or other drivers) will continue. Cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand posits that in the future, one response to forced migration is that cultures become less open, with “higher ethnocentrism, and hostility towards outsiders, which could lead to cross-cultural conflict, radicalisation and even large-scale wars.” Her more optimistic view is that we “improve collaboration between cultures to build a larger global identity to deal with our planetary threats, evolving our highly co-operative species to deal will our collective challenges on earth.”

If all of this sounds overwhelming rather than inspiring, remember that it’s the little things we do today that make all the difference. Whether it’s instigating moments of joy or bettering chances of planetary survival, being human is very much a story about improving the wellbeing of individuals, communities, cultures and the environment through reconnection on many levels: of body and mind, of humans and nature, of science and nature, of economies and human values, of the present and future.  

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