The Social Side of Health: How Reducing Inequality Can Improve Health Outcomes for Americans


From Pulte Institute for Global Development: “In 1961, twenty-year-old Peter Sterling left Cornell University to join the Freedom Rides in Jackson, Mississippi where he was arrested and jailed. That experience shaped his eventual career as a neuroscientist and for the next 20+ years, Sterling split his time between the microscope and the streets of poor communities. What he found is an alarming correlation between social tension and hypertension that challenges the traditional way America views health.

A lifelong political activist and prominent neuroscientist, Sterling believes that society has narrowed the opportunities for Americans to exercise our innate gifts — especially those who are in poor and marginalized communities — and that this mismatch has only increased ‘deaths of despair.’

Dr. Sterling visited the University of Notre Dame on March 28, 2022, to share his view of what health is: equality, education, community, and the belief that your life actually matters.”

Dr. Peter Sterling: “Modern medicine is all about tweaking these little problems with drugs, to fix the problems that were created, basically, by the steam engine, and its later versions. So this doesn’t make any sense. And these drugs that block these old signaling mechanisms reduce responsiveness. This does not lead to health. So we treat despair, addiction, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease at the molecular level with all these drugs sold by all these big pharma companies. And I must say, as a scientist, science has been brilliant in finding these molecules to do this — but it’s not bringing us health. It’s not even plausible. And it’s very, very expensive.

What health requires

  1. Health requires social inclusion.
    • Everyone must feel that their lives actually matter.
    • Reducing inequality reduces stress and despair, thus improves health.
  2. Health requires practicing our gifts across the lifespan.
    • But automation progressively reduces job quality.
    • Need, not more ‘jobs,’ but instead, challenging activities.
  3. Health requires expanding sacred practice to relieve tensions caused by our innate mutual strangeness.
    • We click for products of sacred practice: Spotify, Netflix, ESPN, PornHub.
    • But vicarious experience cannot substitute for participation.
  4. Health requires rebuilding our communities and finding new forms of communal life.
    • Because for our species this is a key source of our essential dopamine.”


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