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Social Health: A Mandate for Our Time

We want to be healthy, but do we even know what a healthy society looks like?

For close to two years I worked on a book project with three other psychologists, the goal of which was no less than envisioning how psychologists might contribute to the creation of a better global society. The post below is written by Elena Mustakova, the lead editor of this volume and (along with John Woodall) the author of the chapter on social health.

By Elena Mustakova

We leave behind us a century of scientific light and political shadow, a century of unequalled progress and unequalled inequality, a century of technology became universal, but so did violence; a century that opened a wide chasm between scientific progress and moral lag, between technological wonders and political miseries…. The homelessness, violence, drugs, declining standards of education, insecurity, rotting infrastructures, unattended problems of old age, women, children, the AIDS pandemic; these are indeed, the cavalries of the Apocalypse in the first world – but also in the Third World…This is the novelty. There is a Third World in the First World, just as there is a First World in the Third World (Fuentes 1995).

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Social health is our deepest resource in a global age. With the transition into the 21st century, we are seeing a vast and growing worldwide surge to tap into this resource, even as it is not yet fully understood.

We are exeriencing two parallel and seemingly opposite historical processes. On the one hand, the ever-faster and unstable pace of life in information societies, the increasingly heavy reliance on virtual reality in a hyper-technological age, the global tendencies toward rigidity and extremism, and the overall instability of a tensions-fraught and war-torn globalizing world oriented toward unlimited exploitation of resources at all cost, have manifested in a fragmentation of human consciousness that is of daunting proportions. On the other hand, already spurred by global disillusionment with the corruption of governments and corporate forces, we see a growing global unification around issues of social justice.

Our chapter, Toward Social Health for a Global Community, poses the question: what role will psychology define for itself at this critical juncture? Will it continue to focus primarily on the individual, or will it develop and put forth a systemic understanding of social health, and become a leading force for collective health amidst the complex and urgent global challenges of our times?

sea shell
Social health is the positive energy and shared orientation to creating social value and wellbeing, released within and among people and groups when they experience meaning and coherence in their lives. Moral coherence is attained to the extent to which a human community recognizes as its central goal to uplift all of its members. Such an orientation creates social health on every level of human systems.

The aspiration to uplift one another is core to our highest nature, and inherently rewarding. This aspiration creates meaningful connections with fellow human beings, on which we thrive. It amplifies community resources and draws out our deepest resilience. Yet, the cultural messages that provide the context of our lives, do not recognize this inherent social aspiration. Rather, they set us up against one another; and promote fragmentation and short-term interests over social health. As a result, we now live in a world that, according to the World Health Organization (2000), is characterized by a social breakdown syndrome. This reality forces us to recognize that social health is linked inextricably to a careful analysis of the broader socio-historical, political, and economic systems that provide the context of life in the twenty-first century.

As early as the mid-20th century, prominent social critic and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1955) observed that the economic system created by modern man has ‘‘become his master, whom he obeys…, and may even worship’’ (p. 120). Six decades later, we are increasingly finding that sustainable individual wellbeing and health for communities is impossible in the context of the frayed social relations which have resulted from the race for fast profit. In recognition of this fact, the World Health Organization identified in 2008 social determinants of health. The same priority is reflected in the U.S. report Healthy People 2020. Yet, social health is a deeper reality than even the best thought-out public policy, oriented at creating social capital and population health.

In our volume, we understand health as coherence of mind, body, heart, and spirit in a particular socio-historical context. We examine the root causes of many seemingly individual symptoms—loneliness, isolation, alienation, anxiety, anomie, low self-esteem, depression, relationship distress, addictions, violence, attention deficit disorders, eating disorders, and others—as influenced by the beliefs, behaviors, and lifestyles generated by the assumptions and values of global capitalism; in particular, individualism, crude materialism, consumerism, greed, commodification, wealth distribution inequities, and labor exploitation. We then take the discussion to its next logical level—the level of society. We pose the question: how can psychology as a social science respond to the new zeitgeist of a vast and growing surge toward morally coherent social systems?

A psychology of social responsibility has to offer meaningful ways to sustain the complex dualities of human life: individual and collective needs, consumption and caring, compassion and competition, independence and interdependence. This requires the development of skills for social health. In the individual, social health is expressed in fair-mindedness—the ability to assess how fair our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are to the social situation at hand. Among people and groups, it is expressed in equity in the context of human diversity. In institutions, it is expressed in justice. Environments purposefully structured to cultivate these skills for ethical living in social diversity foster the deepest expression of people’s capacity to love and support others, to understand, and to create wellbeing.

Without a comprehensive public standard for social health, we are losing our children to fragmentation and confusion, disillusionment and lack of life purpose; and we are failing to solve the seemingly intractable problems of poverty and preventable diseases. We need a Social Health Initiative, which opens up a structured public dialogue around the socio-historical, political, and economic systems that are the context of our fraying social relations; and helps move us to a coherent commitent to creating a socially healthier collective standard.

Such a standard is articulated in the values and organizing principles of the UDHR and the Earth Charter—two global documents that put forth the most compelling recent collective ethical vision for a global future. As we begin to take more seriously this vision, and with it, the real possibility for healthier societies, we need to ask ourselves: What kinds of holding environments does society currently provide, and what do these environments confirm, challenge, and discourage? What systemic problems do we discern in these holding environments, and what changes need to occur? What social processes does social science propose to help set in motion toward realizing the vision of social health implied in the global documents (UDHR and the Earth Charter)?

Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era
This post is an excerpt from a chapter titled Toward Social Health for a Global Community, in Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era, written by Elena Mustakova and John Woodall, published by Springer

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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