You've probably heard of "mental hygiene," which refers to the practices a person takes to promote and preserve their mental health. According to the World Health Organization, health is more than the absence of disease or infirmity. Good health "is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being." Mental health also includes reducing anxiety in our stressful times.
Some of the mental hygiene approaches that show promise include meditation, being grateful, cognitive behavioral therapy, prayer, and exposure to nature. It seems that people can train their minds to achieve specific outcomes much like we can train our bodies to achieve physical fitness. If you want to read more about mental hygiene, see Mental Hygiene: What It Is, Implications, and Future Directions.
Mental hygiene is relatively late to the stage when it comes to practices that are conducive to our well-being. Health officials have been promoting physical hygiene practices for far longer. You will recognize many of these suggestions, also under the category of personal hygiene:
- Brushing your teeth twice a day
- Getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night
- Keeping your hair and body clean, including regular showering and washing your hair
- Washing your hands often, including after using the toilet or touching door handles, before handling food, etc.
- Getting 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity
- Drinking water regularly and avoiding excess alcohol consumption
- Not smoking
When it comes to our dietary hygiene, as in what we should eat and avoid eating, you could fill a library with references and recommended diets. Unfortunately, the advice here is wildly inconsistent and contradictory. I wrote about the long-running problems with nutrition science in one of my earliest posts Nutrition Advice Gives Me Indigestion.
Practically every person you meet has strong views about what they should eat and why. People practice all sorts of diets, from vegetarian to vegan, pescatarian or flexitarian, low carb, Paleo, Keto, Mediterranean, and more. Then there's a trendy approach that focuses on when you eat, not necessarily what you eat, so-called intermittent fasting. With all the variations in diets, and so many people trying so many approaches, you would think clear winners would emerge over time. Alas, the only reliable conclusion you can draw is that diets are ineffective at controlling weight for the large majority of people who try them. To say nothing of their impact on health, well-being, or longevity.
In sum, when it comes to achieving good health, people have followed physical hygiene practices for over a century with good results, dietary hygiene practices for half that time with decidedly mixed results, and mental hygiene practices for a few decades with promising results. But I fear all of this is insufficient to preserving our health.
Based on what I've been observing in the public arena over the last few years, we need to pay urgent attention to another area of hygiene that I don't hear anyone talking about: our moral hygiene. I'll first explain what moral hygiene is, then where our moral ethics come from, and finally why I think we are in danger of losing moral hygiene.
The Stoic philosophy I write about in the Moral Letters addresses moral ethics. Stoicism at its heart is a system of moral values and principles about how to live. It addresses the question of what is morally good and bad. What is the right way to behave in various circumstances, and more importantly, what are the values that make a certain behavior right or wrong?
We don't need to get our values from philosophy for society to function well. But I think societies do need to have some set of largely shared values for them to continue to function. So where do values come from?
Historically, many people found moral values directly in their religions. Think of the Ten Commandments. For these purposes, though, most any religion will do, so long as it describes a set of values that adherents should follow. The similarities in providing people with a moral framework are far more important than the differences in specific topic or wording.
But populations across the world have been gradually secularizing, meaning the general weakening of religions in societies. This has occurred in a couple stages, starting with the scientific process providing explanations for previously mysterious conditions. The more that science explains, the less we need an omniscient god to explain. For a time, particularly after World War II, patriotism for one's country provided a strong source for shared values. This too has eroded, with foreign misadventures, the fading of once-powerful enemies, and active propaganda from within suggesting that imperfect founders created tainted systems.
Aside from direct commandments via religion, the strongest determinant of our values until recently came from the culture we grow up in. This includes what country we're born in, what schools we attend, and the popular media we are bathed in. All this in turn affects how we feel about our system of government, our public and private institutions, and our relationships with our fellow citizens.
Because our values are shaped and reinforced by our interactions with other people, we are heavily influenced by what we see others doing. People are intensely social animals. That explains the appeal of social media generally. At the convenience of our fingers, we can have access to famous and funny (and annoying) people all over the world. They're called influencers for a reason.
In this week's Paradise Found installment, Americans Already Work Two Extra Full-Time Jobs, I discuss just how much time we are spending on-line. I knew it was a lot, but the latest figures are staggering.
Despite spending so much time on-line, our human need to identify with a social group is as strong as ever. Indeed, it is easy to find social groups on-line, much easier than in person. Because the net is cast widely, you can find people who share your specific interests no matter how extreme. As a result, we see two predictable outcomes: group members reinforce and amplify their particular beliefs, and group members distinguish in-group from out-group members.
An interesting and dangerous thing happens when we substitute on-line interactions for in-person interactions: our common values erode even further and become diffuse. We no longer adopt shared values from our immediate culture and surroundings. I don't need to know or care what my neighbors think or do because I don't see them nearly as often as I see my social media feed. I anyway care less about my neighbors because the people I follow on Twitter and Instagram are so much more glamorous. Most worryingly, I feel I have little in common with my neighbors because they are not part of my group.
When we combine strong group identification, loss of shared values, and lack of trust in institutions, history shows it is a short step to dreadful outcomes. In short, people are much more likely to demonize and victimize other group members, and ultimately end up killing each other.
Think it couldn't happen here? How much do you really trust that the people around you share the same ethical values as you do? Are you sure they would make the same decisions about what is morally correct behavior?
This week's Moral Letters provide us only partial relief from such a weighty topic. Moral Letter 099 On Mourning The Dead addresses why some people take grieving too far. If what I discuss above is correct, we may all need a lesson in what is the proper way to approach loss.
In Moral Letter 100 On Popular Authors, we learn that we can take more than guilty pleasure from reading books by popular authors.
By periodically asking ourselves to notice why we enjoy an author's passage, we are training ourselves to pay attention to our thoughts. This is an excellent habit for helping us follow reason in other situations. That's a kind of mental hygiene that can lead to the moral hygiene that we sorely need.