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Issues of the Day Salutogenesis: Wellness Amid Strife

Salutogenesis was the subject of a conference held this week at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva. The meeting was held in honor of Prof. Shifra Sagy, a prominent educational psychologist and head of the university’s graduate program in Conflict Management and Resolution.


Shifra Sagy  studied under and collaborated with Aharon Antonovsky,  who formulated the salutogenesis approach. Prof. Sagy continues to be one of the paradigm’s most prominent researchers and proponents.  

Deriving from the Latin  term salus (health) and the Greek word genesis (origin), salutogenesis is a paradigm examines stress and its negative impact on health. Where contemporary medicine is centered on countering pathogenesis, that is, disease-causing agents, the salutogenetic approach  promotes the strengthening of the individual’s salutary resources and those found in his or her surroundings.

Israelis Adapt to Chronic Stress through Coherence


Shifra Sagy, whose areas of expertise include extensive research pertaining to post-traumatic stress in Israel, began the conference by pointing out several trends that seem inconsistent with respect to a society that has had to contend with strife for sixty-five years: According to international studies, youth here generally describe themselves as happy, the incidence of adult depression is comparatively low, and the percentage of young people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appears to be disproportionately small relative to the number of crises (terrorism, vulnerability to missile attacks, the persistent conflict with the Palestinians, among others) that confront the society.

In fact, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Better Life Index (see Haaretz report), for example,  Israelis, though dissatisfied with several specific aspects of living here are, overall, among the most contented people in the world.  


Salutogenic Analysis


Prof. Sagy offered a salutogenetic analysis to explain the paradox, emphasizing that relations between the individual and Israeli society contribute to a high “sense of coherence,” which is a central dimension of wellbeing according to this approach.

Sense of coherence is defined along three dimensions:  comprehensibility (that the world is orderly and the individual has cognitive resources to understand its changes), manageability (the individual can acquire resources to contend with his or her life) and meaningfulness (that there is purpose in life). This sense is experienced by both the individual and the society and is conferred by family, community and in the course of societal relations.


Shifra Sagy emphasized the importance of meaningfulness in promoting individual and communal coherence. Her research on such crisis as the Yamit evacuation in the early 1980s, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1996), the al-Aksa Intifada (2000), the 2005 Gush Katif disengagement and more recently, the destruction of Bedouin homes on contested lands in the Negev, suggest that a high sense of coherence, along with credible leadership and enduring hope concerning the possibility of an eventual resolution of the conflict with their neighbors has enabled Israelis to fare well despite the various crises that have afflicted the country.

Dr. Sagy’s research findings show that by fostering resources that promote wellbeing and a supportive social infrastructure the effects of chronic stress, such as the eight years of rocket attacks that the population in the south of the country endured until recently, can be blunted.


Salutogenesis and Conflict


This themes of positive psychology, constructive adaptation and reducing exposure to daily stresses was  further discussed by a number of international speakers at the conference, which was attended by colleagues and former and current students of Shifra Sagy.


Although the social implications of salutogenesis was not specifically addressed at the conference, it seems to me that one of the most potent teachings of the salutogenetic paradigm -- that stressors are inimical to human health and wellbeing – should be used  to promote understanding and the resolution of disputes between groups whose relationship is adversarial.  In the interest of health -- a human right -- societies should set their sights on reducing those condition within and between them that produce strife and rancor.   

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