The origins of the Six Pillars of Wellbeing: Part Three

Social: Connection and Altruism


The Lakota people didn’t use a term for farewell because of the idea that we are forever connected. To say goodbye would mean the circle was broken.”

-David Heska Wanbli Weiden

It cannot be overstated how close is the relationship between connection and wellbeing. From an evolutionary point of view the very purpose of happiness may be to promote connection between people – or between people and animal companions – for the safety of the group. That is to say that when you are alone you are less likely to survive – this leads to a feeling of separation – of loneliness – which prompts you to approach other people – and the resulting feeling is a feeling of connection, happiness, and wellbeing. 

We now know that social isolation and loneliness are as important a risk factor for disease and mortality as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. There is also now substantial evidence for a connection between loneliness and mental disorders. The idea of ourselves as individuals separate from the rest of the world is a curiously Western and recent one. We evolved to exist in continuity with families, tribes, society at large, and our ecosystem. This is why loneliness and isolation are so very very painful, and why connection – that is to say spending time with people that make you feel good, and a subjective sense that you have enough connection, are so protective of good mental health. 

We are evolved for a very different environment to the one most of us now find ourselves in. Most of us now live in large impersonal cities and, in a society that values individualism as highly as anything else finding nourishing connections can seem impossible at times. The World Happiness Report asserts that happiness comes from “having a sense of belonging to the community.” Just as poverty destroys the future, a lack of belonging destroys a sense of a stake in society. When people are feeling depressed or overwhelmed they may have the opposite impulse – to isolate themselves and go to a safe place. This feeling is totally understandable and many of us may have learnt that people can be hurtful or deceitful. But ultimately while we may feel relieved and safe in our isolation – this will give rise to loneliness and a feeling of disconnection. As is so often the case, the things that make us feel good immediately- or the thing that relieves discomfort immediately – is the thing that makes us less happy in the long term. 

Different people connect with different types of people, connect to do different types of activities, and like to make contact with people through a variety of different mechanisms. Different people socialise and communicate in different ways. And so a huge variety of means of finding new connections and maintaining old connections is necessary. We have worked hard at Betterspace to find a variety of ways of thinking about and finding connection with people who make you feel good.

Top Tip: Reach out two or three times a day to people who make you feel good. Don’t leave it to chance, schedule it in like you schedule in your meals.

Altruism (Contributing to others)

 “…a positive vision of public health must nurture benevolent affect and helping behavior.”

-Stephen Post

There is a rich philosophical tradition promoting the virtues of altruism – a benevolent focus on others and our extended environment rather than inward focused concerns. The idea that helping others is good for oneself and good for society has tremendous face validity. There is also an irresistible moral and ethical argument for promoting altruistic behaviour even as it serves to improve one’s own wellbeing. Professor Elizabeth Midlarsky has proposed a number of reasons for benefit to the altruistic individual: social integration; a sense of competence and usefulness; increased positive mood; a sense of meaningfulness and value; and distraction from one’s own troubles (see also the effect of activity on rumination). There is also a large body of research affirming and re-affirming the benefits to mental health of acts of kindness and gratitude, volunteering, and acts which benefit communities and the wider lived environment.

A philosophy of mental health which promotes not just individual wellbeing but other-focused and altruistic behaviour also has as its aim the dissemination of good health and good health behaviour throughout the population and the prevention of spread of ill-health. In this way it is analogous to the idea of herd immunity, a form of protection from disease that occurs when a critical mass of a population is immune to a given infection. As Stephen Post emphasises in his article Altruism, happiness, and health: “…a positive vision of public health must nurture benevolent affect and helping behavior.”. 

There is experimental and real-world evidence that acts of kindness and spending on others instead of oneself is associated with better mental health and positive emotions. In longitudinal studies too there is evidence that personal goals with a focus on compassion towards others, rather than “self-image” goals predicted a range of improved mental health outcomes. There is also extensive literature from cohort studies that volunteering (including environmental volunteering) is associated with improved longevity, depression, life satisfaction and wellbeing. It does however appear that when helping becomes burdensome that the mental health benefits reduce or even reverse.

Top Tip: It doesn’t have to be volunteering (but it can be). Any activity focused on others, any act of giving and kindness, service to your community, or to the environment all count.

The Pillars in 2020-21

2020 has been a year of hard learning. Our attention this past year has been tuned in, by necessity, to those things that are most important for our mental health. We have spent too much time in isolation and have been forced to remember the importance of connection. We have been reminded of the importance to both ourselves, to others, and to our community of maintaining a focus on the well being of other people. We have been reminded of the importance of sleep as perhaps the most crucial aspect of the repair, regeneration and consolidation of our physical and emotional well being. We have been forced to become more creative around exercise, and have been reminded again of its crucial importance in improving mood and reducing the inevitable effects of stress. We have been forced to find new ways to manage our stress, because this year has thrown at us, over and over again, new trials. And for many reasons, for some the extra hours in the day, and for others unemployment, we have been forced to think about the hours that we’re awake, and whether or not what we’re doing is nourishing, meaningful and enjoyable. These are the fundamentals of wellbeing – our Pillars.


BetterSpace is the employee wellbeing platform putting control where it belongs: in the hands of the individual employee. Our groundbreaking solution has been developed with medical and domain expertise and is aligned to our Six Pillars of Wellbeing. BetterSpace empowers your workforce to understand and fulfill their mental health needs. 

This approach has achieved engagement rates of 94%, compared to the average usage rate of 2-18% for Employee Assistance Programmes and 10-40% for points solutions.

Want to know more? Schedule a product demonstration with us today.

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