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What does it mean to be healthy?
There are many perspectives on the topic: biological, psychological, and sociological.
Usually, we equate the concept of health with physical health, and more recently, the concept of mental health has also gained traction.
As a sociologist, I’ve been interested in the concept of social health. By this I refer to the health of a social environment. Although the social realm is a distinct object of analysis, it is interrelated with physical and mental health.
Healthy societies contribute to a healthy mind and healthy bodies. So what is a healthy society?
I define a healthy society as one that is socially integrated in a way that meets our basic physical and psychological needs, facilitating a sense of higher purpose.
This is a sociological take on Abraham Maslow’s view:
The good or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted man’s highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all his basic needs.
For Maslow, his famous hierarchy ranks these needs from the most basic to the most advanced. I don’t necessarily agree with his strict rank ordering and a 2011 study on the topic confirms this skepticism.
Throughout my research on suicide, I’ve come to see how social needs are as important as our biological need for food. Those whose social needs are not met may find themselves at risk of dying by suicide.
Although I agree with Maslow’s broader theory of human flourishing, I prefer to draw on more recent psychological research on our basic social needs.
According to Self determination theory, we have three basic social/psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Competence consists of the sense that one has specific skills and is progressing in their abilities.
A healthy social environment provides worthy goals with clear guidelines that act as signposts to human action. Without socially sanctioned signposts regulating our actions, individuals may feel lost or purposeless. The classic sociologist, Émile Durkheim, writes:
All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or—which is the same thing—when his goal is infinity.
Consider any worth-while goal or endeavor and you will quickly realize it is marked by the stamp of social values. Our goals are often regulated by what is deemed valuable to a particular social context.
Although we need social regulation to give us purpose and a sense of contribution, this does not mean we need to simply conform, bringing us to the next fundamental need:
Autonomy consists of feeling that one is in control of one’s own actions.
In sociological terms this means social regulations are not overbearing and fatalistic. Although autonomy is important, too much of it can produce individualistic social contexts where individuals no longer feel connected to a broader community. This brings us to the last fundamental need:
Relatedness consists of the sense that one can depend on a close circle of other individuals.
In his classic sociological text, Suicide, Durkheim states:
“…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”
Interdependence is the key to a healthy social context that balances individual needs with the needs of the group.
Interdependence requires goal alignment between the individual and the group. As stated in my article addressing the question, “What is a healthy identity?“:
…the military is a great example of institutionalized interdependence. Identities are built within a system of distinct, yet related, roles where one’s unique skills, abilities, preferences, and character, all contribute to an organization with functional capacities beyond the sum of its individual parts.
Unfortunately, interdependence is easily forgotten in modern individualistic social contexts:
Interdependence works on many levels: organizationally, nationally, and globally.
Healthy societies are like living organisms, institutions and organizations are the organs, and individuals are the cells that compose the organs.
Societies interact with other societies, just as our bodies interact with other bodies; organizations interact with other organizations, just as our bodily organs interact; and individuals interact with other individuals, just as our cells interact.
My vision is a world of interdependent social relations. A world were social environments facilitate individual flourishing. A world where economies work to fulfill human needs, rather than a world where human needs are sidelined at the expense of economies.