What would we consider a healthy social environment?
Even though wisdom traditions have had a lot to say about what may be the path to an ideal society, the question of social health was first asked in scientific terms by the World Health Organization in 1947. In recognition of the fact that physical and mental health alone are not sufficient for a fulfilled life, WHO described social health in terms of socially adjusted individuals and public policies that ensure equal opportunity and access by all to the goods and services essential to full functioning as a citizen.
A few years later, a physician, Dr. Stephen Wolf, and his colleague Dr. John Bruhn, made a groundbreaking medical discovery as they stumbled upon and studied the Roseto community in rural Pennsylvania. They found that the remarkable health of that community could not be understood only in terms of individual lifestyle choices. The physicians had to understand the cultural values of that community, and the protective social structures these values created, insulating people from the unhealthy pressures of the modern world. For 60 years after the initial publication of this research, Wolf continued to work to reform the understanding of health in medical education through a greater appreciation of the role of values in social environments and human ecology.
At the same time, one of the profound social critics of the 20th century, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, also took a more in-depth look at the phenomenon of social health, beyond individual adjustment and public policy. He made clear that a society is only healthy to the extent to which it recognizes as its primary loyalty to create conditions that respond to the unique needs of the human spirit to create meaningful and coherent life. (The Sane Society, 1955)
Yet, the role of values in social health continues to be an untapped resource.
Human societies have continued to be torn by diverse and conflicting loyalties. Efforts to create healthier social conditions continued, 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 generated, but mostly concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the world population; and according to many statistics, happiness did not follow automatically. The race 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 led to a 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 led to healthier societies.
Social health continues to be elusive, even as it is now recognized as a priority, reflected in the U.S. report Healthy People 2020. We continue to be steeped in cultural messages that set up individuals and groups against one another; and in social environments that feed the most self-centered passions, and prize material power and fast profit over social health.
Our global society has no clear and comprehensive public standard for social health, because it lacks a unifying spiritual ethic, which cultivates skills for social health.
A spiritual ethic recognizes the fundamental interdependence between individual wellbeing and the wellbeing of the concentric circles of communities woven into our daily lives. It creates balance in our lives between material concerns and aspirations and the needs of the human spirit. It places the greatest value on educating and ennobling minds and hearts, and uplifting every human being. It inspires communities to create resources and to find collective ways to transform physical challenges.
A spiritual ethic emphasizes the development of skills for social health. On the level of the individual, it cultivates the skill of fair-mindedness – the ability to assess how fair our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are to the social situation at hand. On the level of groups, it requires the skill of equity in the context of human diversity. On the level of institutions, it requires the skill of justice. A spiritual ethic fosters these skills through the emphasis it places on cultivating coherence between mind, heart, and action.
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.
To move toward more social health, we have to recognize as central in social life the uplifting of the human spirit.
Our unique capacity to be conscious of our experience separates us from immersion in nature. Hence, we 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.
This longing for meaningful and coherent (not mutually contradictory) connections with others lends life its deepest meaning. When that meaning is not fully recognized and fostered, the human spirit wanes and societies become progressively more unhealthy.
The full development of personhood happens only in the context of service to a collective aspiration towards greater unity with fellow human beings made possible by conditions of justice.
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.
A central factor in creating more social health is the degree of critical consciousness in individual and collective life – i.e. the willingness and ability to examine critically the ethical coherence of prevalent assumptions that underpin social values and governance processes. Many of these values and assumptions currently reveal pathogenic influences on the modern character. Critical consciousness also involves a responsible examination of our individual roles in the collective environments we create. It involves dialectical thinking, in which differences are not perceived as threats, but rather as opportunities to find deeper common ground or a higher level of integration.
As more individuals, groups, and institutions bring dialectical thinking to the collective establishing of shared understanding across diverse perspectives on how best to create conditions for greater fair-mindedness, equity and justice, human society moves toward social health.
The degree of social health at any particular time is a dynamic outcome of the dialectical relationship between different social levels of health – the degree of fair-mindedness in individuals, the degree of equity in groups, and the degree of justice in institutions.
A healthy society or human community, then, is one in which moral and spiritual coherence underlies every level of social organization. Such a society or community is governed by respect for human dignity and for human emotional, physical, and spiritual needs, as well as by full recognition of the interdependence between local and global governance.
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.
In other words, 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 the four dimensions above. We can use this lens to examine every level of human social organization.
We are challenged to recognize that we all contribute to the degree of moral and spiritual coherence in our societies. We can choose to raise social health as a primary value in education, economy, health care, and governance.