The recently released World Happiness Report establishes empirically what we all should know intuitively, that people who live in more equal societies report higher levels of happiness and well being than more unequal countries, like the United States. The #1 country was Finland, a moderately wealthy society with a high degree of economic equality, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. The United States ranks 18th, despite being the richest country in the history of the world. According to Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the editors of the report, “US society is in many ways under profound stress, even though the economy by traditional measures is doing fine.” The USA dropped three places in the rankings due to declining life expectancy, rising suicide rates, a worsening opioid crisis and declining social trust.
These findings track perfectly with a book I’ve been reading, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by public health experts Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. This book makes two dramatic points. First (no “off” necessary), in wealthy countries, “the age of economic growth is dead.” Beyond an average per capita income of around $25,000 (USA approximately equal $60,000) no further gains in health, longevity or social well being are achieved. People in Malta live about as well and long as we do. Each additional dollar to the overall society brings diminishing returns and declining marginal utility. A doubling of per capita income in wealthy countries yields no additional social benefits, while increasing climate change and environmental damage in the long run.
Second, while additional income beyond the base level fails to improve the overall quality of life, in highly unequal countries it reliably produces more misery for all classes, rich, middle and poor. Wilkinson and Pickett use international (UN, World Bank) and US (Census, state and federal agencies) data to construct an Index of Health and Social Problems that measures ten variables: level of social trust; mental illness and addiction; life expectancy and infant mortality; obesity; academic test scores; teen birth rates; homicides; incarceration levels and social mobility. The data shows that all these problems are more prevalent in highly unequal countries (US, UK, Portugal) than more equal ones (Japan, Denmark, Norway), and the more unequal a society becomes, the worse the outcomes.
So what matters most, in mid to higher income countries, is not the level of national wealth but the distribution of resources within these societies. Remember we’re using nations as the unit of measurement. Within rich countries, poorer individuals certainly benefit from increased income, and this is doubly true for poorer, developing nations. We could measurably increase the health and happiness of most of the world’s people by creatively redistributing (there, I said it!) the excess level of wealth in richer countries to poorer citizens and nations, while minimizing the environmental impact of uncontrolled and largely useless growth. This would also stem the rising refugee crisis worldwide, since people would be better able to support themselves and families in place, rather than risking life and limb in rickety boats or hazardous land crossings to reach the West and send money back home.
Reported rates of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed in highly unequal rich countries like the UK and USA since the 1950s, in the midst of sustained economic growth. What explains this? It turns out, unsurprisingly, that human beings are exquisitely vulnerable to social evaluative threat. We measure our self worth, esteem and status not on what we actually have (cars, homes, cell phones, clothes etc.) but by where we stand in relation to others. Shame and pride are the primary social emotions. The more we have the better we feel about ourselves (smarter, better, harder working, more deserving), and of course the opposite is true as well. As inequality rises and social mobility falls, more and more people experience stress over their precarious position and prospects. Even the “successful” find themselves increasingly stressed to maintain their class status and social image in a highly competitive, fragmented, cutthroat culture.
And we largely face these social threats alone, without the support of the broader community of extended families, churches, familiar neighbors and web of supportive relationships that sustained our ancestors and gave them a secure identity beyond the marketplace. Lennon and McCartney were on to something when they sang “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love” (which they later said was “all you need”). Well, not quite. You still need food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care, education, recreation and a few other things that comprise the modern middle class life and keep our noses to the grindstone. Yet, beyond a certain comfort level, having more really won’t help you, so why not give the excess away? “Get equal, be happy.”