Think of a time when you felt good about yourself and your life. Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing? Chances are you were either happily alone, or with people that you cared about and who cared about you. You probably had an unspoken feeling of fitting in, of shared values, of belonging.
Humans are inherently social beings. 90% of the wiring in our brains is to do with processing social and emotional information. The need to experience a sense of belonging is so deeply woven in to who we are, it’s buried in the mechanisms that maintain not only emotional but also physiological equilibrium and wellbeing.
Our evolution as a species depended on the presence of what are called “hive” emotions. Feelings that keep us loyal, bonded and trustworthy. Generosity, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, that kind of thing.
So important are such “other”-directed sentiments to our own and others’ survival that we are designed to flourish and thrive when demonstrating ways of being that promote social cohesion. Win – win!
Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Loneliness has been shown to be as big a risk factor for heart disease as smoking and obesity. Loneliness and isolation are bad for us. It’s not whether there are people around us. We can feel isolated even amid a sea of people. It’s the nature with which we connect, the quality of the interactions, the sincerity of the engagement, the “presence” that matters.
A recent survey showed that 94% of people are looking for a new job whilst at work. When asked why, a culture of secrecy, office politics, difficult managers or colleagues, a sense of lack of belonging, are cited as the major reasons people move on. In other words, other people.
At work much mental and emotional distress and alienation can be caused by small indirect acts of aggression – body language, rolling the eyes, talking over people, ignoring their emails or delaying replying, cliques, not inviting people, withholding information. These are subtle ways in which we can alienate people, albeit unwittingly. And yet we know that a team’s performance is directly proportional to engagement, which in turn depends on the emotional intelligence (EQ) of its leaders. EQ leads to listening, connecting, caring – creating a culture where everyone matters.
Jean-Paul Sartre said “Hell is other people”. Sadly, it can sometimes seem that way. But when we explore the science of wellbeing, we see that the opposite is actually true, which is why I say, “Health is other people”.
Belonging is as essential to our wellbeing as exercise and good nutrition. It underpins our sense of self. We care deeply about what others think of us. When asked, people would rather experience physical pain that the pain of social isolation. In the context of work, businesses increase their productivity when they create a culture where everyone matters, that are human centred. Rather than targeting individuals, demanding that they become more resilient, as if it were their fault they they can’t cope with excessive workloads, resources would be better directed at measures that increase personal presence, emotional literacy, inter-personal connectedness, embedding a social-emotional culture that recognises and values our inter-depence, our need to belong.