What would we consider a healthy social environment?

Even though wisdom traditions have had a lot to say about what may be an ideal society, that question was first asked in scientific terms by the World Health Organization in 1947, in recognition of the fact that individual physical and mental health alone are not enough for a person to have a healthy life. Shortly after that, in 1955, one of the profound thinkers and social critics of the 20th century, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, took up a systematic examination of what makes for a healthy society.

Efforts to address this vital understanding continued for the next five decades, but remained partial and marginal to the forward march of global markets, which captured imaginations with the promise of unprecedented wealth and happiness. Significant material wealth was certainly generated, but mostly concentrated in the hands of a very small percentage of the world population, and according to many statistics, happiness did not seem to follow automatically. Further, the greed for fast profits at all cost led to a rapid degradation of the natural environment that sustains all of us. The extreme poverty of the majority of the world’s population also contributed to rapid environmental degradation. Climate change has been resulting in a rapidly growing frequency of severe natural disasters and intensified suffering for large numbers of people. In summary, much greater material wealth than ever before in human history has not in and of itself led to healthier societies.

A healthy society is one that inspires people to engage life in creative and productive ways, and leaves everybody feeling more cared for, appreciated, and encouraged. When that happens, people naturally give their best to their work and to their communities, which creates social capital and healthy and vibrant communities.

Clearly, social health is not simply a matter of individual adjustment, or of government policies that try to ensure equal opportunity for all and access by all to the goods and services essential to full functioning as a citizen, as described from an outcome-oriented point of view by the World Health Organization. While creating social health certainly includes these aspects, it is clearly not solely up to individuals or governments, but up to all of us and particularly, up to the understanding and orientation we all bring.

Social health can be understood as the capacity for ethical living in complex social diversity – a capacity on every level, from the individual and the family, to national and international institutions and societies.

What are some central aspects of social health to understand and consciously work toward?

1.  A genuine grasp of the fundamental interdependence between our individual wellbeing and the wellbeing of the concentric circles of communities woven into our daily lives.

We cannot continue to assume, in the face of so much scientific and practical evidence to the contrary, that what we do matters only to us unless it obviously encroaches on another. Learning to care about the consequences of our choices for other people, both known and unknown, makes us feel more connected, less isolated and lonely, healthier, and happier. It creates balance in our lives between material concerns and aspirations and the needs of the human spirit.

2.  To move toward more social health, we have to recognize and orient ourselves collectively to the basic needs of the human spirit. We have a unique capacity for consciousness and therefore, unlike all other beings, we are not immersed in nature but are aware of, and experience ourselves as separate from nature. As a result, we also experience a constant tension between the desire to regress to our instinctual animal nature and thus do away with the separation, and a longing to progress and to develop ever more harmonious conscious ways to feel connected to fellow human beings, ourselves, and nature. Therefore, the human spirit needs fair opportunities to exercise its powers to love, understand, and create, and in that process to develop a sense of true belonging. In short, the human spirit needs justice and unity.

3. Because of these fundamental needs of the human spirit, the full development of personhood happens only in the context of service to a collective aspiration towards greater justice and unity. In other words, regardless of the degree of material wealth beyond a basic level of comfort and security, people are only really happy and fulfilled when they are creating social health for others. To the extent that a society pays only lip service to the value of service to the collective good, but in fact rewards selfishness far more, justice and unity are clearly not central goals, and a society is not oriented primarily toward generating more social health.

4. The overall degree of the health of a society can be understood as the extent to which all forms of social organization are purposefully structured toward enabling individuals and diverse groups to build meaningful ethical lives based on reason and love.

5. Another central aspect of social health is the willingness and ability to examine critically the degree of ethical coherence of prevalent assumptions that underpin current social values and governance processes, many of which reveal pathogenic influences on the modern character. It also involves a responsible examination of our individual roles in the collective environments we create.

6. The degree of social health at any particular time is a dynamic outcome of the dialectical relationship between different levels of health in a complex social system – social health in the individual, social health among people and groups, and social health in institutions. Social health in the individual is expressed in fair-mindedness. Social health among people and groups is expressed in equity. Social health in institutions is expressed in justice.

7. Creating social health depends on the degree to which individuals, groups, and institutions bring dialectical thinking to the collective process of establishing consultative shared understanding across diverse perspectives on how best to approach creating conditions for greater fair-mindedness, equity and justice. Dialectical thinking allows for differences not to be perceived as threats, but rather as opportunities to find deeper common ground or a higher level of integration.

8. Healthy society, then, is one in which moral coherence –the same principles of respect for human dignity and for human emotional, physical, and spiritual needs, as well as for the interdependence between local and global, underlies every level of social organization.

9. Potential indicators of the degree of social health are the degree of presence or absence of (1) moral and spiritual self-understanding in individuals and communities; (2) internalized examples of authentic moral and spiritual authority; (3) experiences of levels and degrees of interconnectedness and interdependence; (4) shared larger meanings that embraces the human family and life on the planet. I.e., if we want to know specifically to what extent a specific school or public institution focuses on cultivating social health, we have to assess the extent to which moral and spiritual motives and values predominate over expediency motives and values along these four dimensions above. We can use this lens to examine every level of human social organization.

In summary, to orient ourselves to social health means to recognize that we all participate in creating moral and spiritual coherence in our societies. It also means to strive to align social organization, education, health care, prevention, economic and organizational global governance with the consultatively unfolding collective understanding of fair-mindedness, equity, and justice in a global society.

Another way of framing this concept is as an orientation to an ecological civilization on every level of human organization – from the individual, to the family, the community, the nation, and the global community.

The conscious, intentional orientation to social health becomes self-regulating and shifts the focus and balance of all our choices, and of the way we approach life.

Meet the Minds: Dr. Elena Mustakova and Dr. John Woodall

Building a healthy social environment
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