i was at an interesting talk on sunday by a manager of mental health services*. he talked about social connectedness and it's effect on well-being. he referred to the MSD's 2009 social report, which defines social connectedness [pdf] as "the relationship people have with others". it goes on to say:
Relationships give people support, happiness, contentment and a sense they belong and have a role to play in society. They also mean people have support networks in place they can call on for help during hard times...
Several studies have demonstrated links between social connectedness and the performance of the economy and positive outcomes for individual health and wellbeing.
Social connectedness is fostered when family relationships are positive, and when people have the skills and opportunities to make friends and to interact constructively with others. Good health, employment, and feeling safe and secure all increase people’s chances of developing positive relationships.
the speaker mentioned that well-being actually leads to good health, then went on to talk about aspects around social connectedness. one example he gave was of the roseto effect, which is basically the study of an isolated but close-knit community in america that had much better health stats than the average even though lifestyle factors such as employment, diet and exercise were pretty much the same as everyone else. the factors that explained this unusual health outcome were said to be communal rituals, social support and cohesion, shared values, a common aim, family meals, and a lack of uncertainty.
there was plenty more to the talk (including a mention of the roots of empathy thing), and it was really interesting. but the thing that struck me most is that, as an activist, the one thing you do is go against prevailing values and customs. because your views or your activities are designed to change the status quo, you often face hostility and lose that social connectedness. which, according to the above, will have negative consequences on your well-being and general health.
i did ask the speaker about this, and how to deal with it. i wasn't entirely satisfied with his answer, though it was pretty good. he said something along the lines of treating the people you want to change with respect, recognising that you yourself are not perfect just as they are not perfect. that i agree with, in the sense that i always think you kill more flies with honey ie i prefer to bring people along incrementally than to be confrontational and challenging. having an inherent respect for the people you're interacting with will always show in the way you behave and the words you choose, and is more likely to get them listening.
but. often the change that is required of people will mean that they are potentially less well-off, at least in the short term. in being an activist, you are actually challenging the power structures of society and seeking to change them. those who currently have the power aren't likely to give it up easily, no matter how polite and respectful you might be.
there are times when activism has to be direct and confrontational, when someone has to go out on a limb to stand up for their cause because progress just isn't being made. a relevant example for here is the suffragettes, many of whom suffered and were ostracised but without whom women in some countries would not have been able to vote.
it seems to me that social justice is more important than social connectedness. that there is no point in having personal wellbeing when there are people around you who are suffering and need help. when that help can only be effectively delivered through institutional and structural changes in society, then i think we have a moral duty to go out on a limb and challenge the shared values that allow marginalisation to exist. even at the cost of social-connectedness, although we can always hope that there will be other people who agree with us and can provide us with some positive connections.
*i haven't got permission to use his name, so the speaker will remain anonymous. would love to attribute though, as i was certainly impressed.