Emotional Health

Social Wealth — Our Most Precious Commodity

There’s an adage that says there are two ways of feeling rich: one is to pursue and accumulate wealth and the other is to appreciate what you have. This is an era that has seen rapid economic growth for only a small number of people while the rest of us are stagnant or even losing ground economically. At the same time, our culture seems more focused than ever on the things that money can buy, and thanks to technology, we have unprecedented opportunities to watch while the ultra-rich lives in luxury.

Much as we worship material goods, studies show that they have limited ability to make us happy. While poverty is clearly linked to unhappiness, once people reach a comfortable standard of living, having more money is not necessarily correlated with increased wellbeing. In the US, once an individual reaches an annual income of about $75,000, having more doesn’t make much of a difference. We have all heard stories about lottery winners whose lives were not improved, but instead were wrecked by their “good fortune.”

There are other things more that contribute to overall happiness, wellbeing, and health. In a recent editorial, The New York Times columnist David Brooks examined our connections to others, what he calls “social wealth.” Psychologists, physicians, sociologists and others have all emphasized that the strength and quality of our human relationships have a decisive impact on lives. People with social support in any form, including family, friends, community, religious groups, etc., consistently report higher levels of wellbeing on many measures.

Conversely, loneliness is literally deadly. Brooks writes, “Weak social connections have health effects similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and a greater negative effect than obesity. . .Over the past five years, such trends have abruptly gotten worse. In 2012, 5.9 percent of young people suffered from severe mental health issues. By 2015 it was 8.2 percent.”

Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former Surgeon General, said in a recent article in The Harvard Business Review: “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

Even as we learn more and more about this deadly correlation, social isolation is getting worse. Some changes have been slow. Families having been getting smaller for decades, and they are less likely to live together. Often, they are separated by thousands of miles. Increasingly, too, people don’t find a job and keep it for life. Many Americans change jobs frequently, others are now part of the “gig” economy. Meanwhile, neighborhoods have been changed into unrecognizable strings of national chain stores while some have been destroyed altogether.

I grew up in a New York neighborhood with small local shops whose owners and employees were well known. When the video store closed in the late 1980s, neighbors helped Ernesto, the talented young manager, get a job at the local bank known when I was a child as First National City Bank. It is now Citibank. Ernesto rose to be assistant manager, but he is no longer at this “branch.” The quirky clothing store is now a shop selling French children’s clothes and every other shop is a cellphone store, a chain drugstore, or another bank.

The only constant in the neighborhood seems to be James, a local man who was homeless and who became so well known to residents that he made an appearance in two separate novels that are set in the neighborhood. As the wealth gap has grown, he too has more competition from other panhandlers.

Brooks cites the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar who “observes that human societies exist on three levels: the clan (your family and close friends), the village (your local community) and the tribe (your larger group). In today’s America you would say that the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.”

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