Want to be happier, healthier and live longer?

February 13th, 2015

Sounds good, right? Well, if you like that idea, let’s try this. Instead of just you being better off, what if we put you in a place where everyone is happier, healthier and more likely to live a long, satisfying life? Actually, let’s get more specific than that. How would you like to live in a society in which:

• people are physically and emotionally more healthy, meaning lower rates of obesity, chronic disease, mental illness and drug addiction
• people live longer
• fewer infants die and more children thrive
• children do better in school and grow up to be lifelong learners who contribute to a smarter society
• women have greater rights, more equality
• social mobility increases and success is easier for everyone to achieve
• crime rates plummet (including violent crime) and fewer people are in prison
• people are friendlier and trust each other more
• overall rates and levels of anxiety and depression decrease dramatically
• poverty is all but eliminated

“Yes,” you say? You want that? You want to know how to get there? The answer, according to scientific research, is greater income equality. Nations structured to have greater income equality consistently rank higher in every category of health and well-being. The same is true for states within the U.S.; the more equal they are, the healthier.

Richard Wilkinson is a leading scholar of the effects inequality has on public health. In 2009, he and Kate Picket co-authored “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.” The book is packed with scientifically-researched evidence on which they base their claims, but it’s also written well enough that reading it doesn’t put you to sleep.

(If you’re not sure you want to read the book, you can always watch Wilkinson’s TED Talk here, in which he summarizes his findings.)

As I read The Spirit Level, this line from its first chapter caught my attention:

Rather than blaming parents, religion, values, education or the penal system, we will show that the scale of inequality provides a powerful lever on the psychological wellbeing of all of us. (p.5)

This is sometimes the hard thing about scientific evidence. It often doesn’t confirm what we already believe. Take the issue of education, for example. While we frequently like to blame disengaged parents, incompetent teachers, or even a lack of school funding for our nation’s declining educational performance, the facts show a deeper cause. The truth is that countries who really succeed in educational performance are the ones who place great value on equality and structure their society and educational system to reflect that value.

Likewise, since biblical times, plenty of people — from prophets to pew-sitters — have repeatedly blamed society’s moral decline on a lack of religion. But the wide and comprehensive data set shared through books like The Spirit Level calls that theory into question. Instead, it says that the biggest factor influencing the moral stability of our society is income equality or the lack thereof.

But just because religious devotion may not be the key determinant of social health does not mean faith is absent from the equation. As Pope Francis has rightly demonstrated, our Christian faith has a lot to say about inequality. As he puts it, inequality is the root of all ills, and the unjust structures which create inequality are the most frequent topic of his sermons.

One hopes that the Pope’s leadership and recent scholarship by the likes of Wilkinson, et al, is having a positive effect on the national conversation here in the U.S. Perhaps it is. On the plus side, even Republicans are now speaking up about income equality, a topic they’ve avoided in the past.

The problem is most Republicans (and too many of their constituents; i.e., us) are still very much against policies that actually create more equality, things like: raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy, financial regulation and universal health care.

In the end, though, it’s up to us, the citizens. If we want better, happier, longer lives for both ourselves and our neighbors, we need to understand and talk about what will get us there: greater equality. And we need to follow that talk with action at the voting booth, supporting candidates who not only talk about equality but who actually have the will to enact policies that will take us there.

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