In the middle of the last century a set of global values were initiated around health when the World Health Organisation was created out of the postwar UN-led world. That definition, unchanged today, cites the idea of ‘social wellbeing’ mixed in with physical and mental wellbeing and, like so much in policymaking at large, needs a modern update.
It is time to focus on what social wellbeing means to society in an era which now is dominated by ICT and connected communication – a world in which every student, every teacher, every politician, every business, every home is surrounded by the hardware of ‘social’.
We live in an era which is, literally, fully connected: The ‘always on’ society means that there is often no beginning, middle or end to the working day, to the learning environment, to the communication chatter between people.
Where has the education and literacy been around social wellness, social fitness, or what I call Social Health? Certainly nothing in comparison to the global wellness industry: Global Wellness Institute quotes a market covering everything from gyms to vitamins as being over $3.4 trillion – twice the size of the global arms trade.
Social Health is a set of behaviours which individuals and institutions alike can adopt to manage the Age of Overload we find ourselves in. In this era, only 150 short years since the world began to be connected by modern transport, telecommunications and just a quarter of a century since the arrival of the internet, we are seeing problems we can no longer ignore.
Those problems have to do with scale, speed and the tension between humans in a machine age: Global productivity is stagnant, the number of working days lost per annum continues to rise, and almost every aspect of corporate life is facing upheaval due to technology, travel, and the digitally native generations.
When Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook announced in 2016 that a billion people were connected on the social media platform in a single day (one seventh of the world’s population” and that it was ‘just the beginning of connecting the whole world’ he did so with no irony. Facebook is now one of many social media companies facing the consequences of what social phycicists call the accelerated ‘spreading rate’ of certain networked information systems – and we know that the outcome is not entirely positive, democratic or educational. Sometimes, but not always.
Although our modern world benefits in countless way from modern connectedness, technology, AI, and we cannot (and should not) try to put the tech genie back in the bottle, we need an antidote to the excesses and deficits.
We may not have needed to focus on the means of connected communication, information flows, networks in a time-poor society seventy years ago, when the World Health Organisation was addressing poverty, poor nutrition, poor social mobility.
But we do today, as the twentieth first century nears adulthood. Social Health is, I believe, a way to manage our flows of knowledge and networks and knowing when to disconnect from technology and rely on face-to-face connections in a Facebook age. At its core is forming a ‘knot’ in which Knowledge, Networks and Time are all managed.
Who you know and who knows what and how to get to the right information and people as quickly as possible is social health. This ‘knot’ of Knowledge, Networks and Time forms a trinity of priorities for social health as Diet, Exercise and Sleep do for our physical and mental health.
The political, cultural, educational and practical shift required will challenge many assumptions we make about how we organise ourselves and our systems. In academic disciplines from organisational behaviour to neuroscience, from management to sociology, we are realising that the changing world requires changing narratives, changing interpretation, changing systems to be more functional not less, more productive, not less, more healthy as individuals operating in a connected global environment.
We’re at the beginning of an exciting and important new era. Let’s develop the social health gym kit to realise our potential – together.
-written by Julia Hobsbawm ©
Julia Hobsbawm is Honorary Visiting Professor at London’s Cass Business School and the author of Fully Connected: Surviving & Thriving in an Age of Overload.