Hey, America: It's Time to Redefine the 'Good Life'

Although economic growth has been an important driver of human progress in the past, we in the developed world must now look elsewhere for improvements in our quality of life.

The following is excerpted from theThe Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Strongerby Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, published by Bloomsbury Press. Copyright © 2009 by the authors.

It seems likely that environmental constraints on economic growth will dominate world politics for the foreseeable future. A pessimistic view would be that this is the beginning of the end of the most prosperous chapter in human history, and that business activity will be submerged -- if not by storms and rising sea levels -- then by a rising tide of government restrictions. A more optimistic response is to view the necessary constraints on economic growth as an opportunity to create a new and better post-consumerist society.

As the quality of life is so often defined in terms of material living standards and national income per person, it might seem paradoxical to claim that environmental restrictions on economic growth need not involve sacrificing our quality of life. But if instead we define the ‘quality of life’ in terms of life expectancy, happiness and well-being, then the data clearly shows that we, in the rich market democracies, no longer benefit from increasing affluence.

Although economic growth has been the most important driver of human progress in the past and still has a crucial role to play in improving lives in developing countries, we in the developed world must now look elsewhere for further improvements in the real quality of life.

We are social epidemiologists; people who usually spend their time trying to understand how social factors affect population health. Our work has focused on different aspects of wellbeing in rich market democracies. Rather than looking at subjective measures, such as happiness, we have looked at objective measures, such as life expectancy, homicide rates, drug abuse, child well-being, levels of trust, involvement in community life, mental illness, teenage birth rates, children’s math and literacy scores, and the proportion of the population in prison.

Instead of finding that each society does well on some of these outcomes and badly on others, we found that countries tend to be consistently good or bad performers, across the board. If a country has high life expectancy, it also tends to have stronger community life, a smaller proportion of its population behind bars, better mental health, fewer drug problems and children doing better in school.

The differences in the performance of more and less equal countries are very large. Rather than things being just a bit worse in more unequal countries, they are very much worse. More unequal countries have three times the rates of violence, of infant mortality and of mental illness. Their teenage birth rates are six times as high, and rates of imprisonment are eight times higher.

What could account for such huge differences in performance, spread across so many outcomes?

The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple -- inequality. The bigger the income differences between the rich and poor in a country, the worse it does. The relationship could not have been clearer: the greater the inequality the more socially dysfunctional societies become -- regardless of their overall economic performance. Whether a country is as rich as the USA or, like Greece, only half as wealthy, seems to have no bearing on levels of health and social problems.

The measure of inequality we used was the ratio of the incomes of the top 20 percent compared to the incomes of the bottom 20 percent in each country. In the less unequal countries (such as Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden) the top 20 percent have 3.4 to 4.0 times as much. In the more unequal countries (USA, Portugal, UK) they have between 7 and 8.5 times as much. By this measure they are twice as unequal as the more equal countries.

In case people thought that our findings -- despite very high levels of statistical significance -- reflected nothing more than the vagaries of national culture and political history, we decided to use the 50 US states as a separate test bed, and look to see whether more unequal states also perform less well. We found that for the US states, as for countries, the greater the income differences the greater a society’s burden of health and social problems. And again, average incomes were unimportant.

Aware of some of the political sensitivities round inequality, we thought we should also check our results against someone else’s measure of wellbeing. The UNICEF Index of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries, which combines data on 40 different aspects of children’s lives, seemed like a good alternative yardstick. It includes everything from whether children feel they can talk to their parents, to immunization rates, to measures of bullying at school. We found that child wellbeing too, was strongly associated with the size of the gap between rich and poor, but unrelated to national levels of average income per person.

This research, outlined in our book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury, 2009), brings together many years of our own and other people’s research devoted to trying to understand why some rich countries are healthier than others. There are now over 200 studies of income inequality and health. A recent study covering 60 million people concluded that inequality affects population health, even after adjusting for individual incomes in each society. There are also many studies showing that homicide rates are lower in more equal countries.

Throughout the centuries, there have always been those who have believed that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. That intuition seems to be borne out by our data. In the more unequal countries and US states, only about 15 or 20 percent of the population feel they can trust others, compared to around two-thirds in the more equal ones. More equal societies are also more cohesive, with stronger community life. Coupled with the evidence on violence, this confirms that inequality damages the social fabric of society. If you have to walk home alone late at night, you’d feel easier about it in a more equal society.

Our interpretation of these findings is that bigger income differences lead to bigger social distances across the status hierarchy, increasing feelings of superiority and inferiority, and adding to status competition and status insecurity. Some of the causal links between greater inequality and adverse outcomes are well known: the physiological effects of low social status, lack of social support and of stress in early childhood are now understood: chronic stress has profound effects on all biological systems. Similarly, the reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is because high levels of inequality make status even more important, and the most common triggers to violence are, of course, disrespect, loss of face and humiliation.

But there is a more fundamental explanation of why we are so sensitive to inequality. Because individuals within any species have the same needs, the greatest potential for conflict is almost always between members of the same species. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes regarded this as the central problem of politics. Because we all have the same needs, the competition "of each against all" would, in the absence of a sovereign power to keep the peace, make life “nasty, brutish and short”. But, of course, unlike other species, human beings also have the potential to be each other’s best source of cooperation, assistance, love and learning.

This is why other people can be heaven or hell -- our best sources of security and support, or our most feared rivals. Everything depends on the quality of the social relationships between us. Sharing food is deeply symbolic because of the stark opposition between reciprocity and competition over access to necessities. Throughout both human history and pre-history, gifts have been symbols of friendship and in some societies refusing a gift is close to a declaration of war. Because gifts assert that giver and receiver recognize each others needs and will not compete over access to scarce resources, the exchange of gifts affirms friendship, sharing and reciprocity.

It is because our long evolution as social animals has sensitized us so acutely to the quality of social relations that studies now find social status and friendship are such powerful psychosocial protectors of health and wellbeing, while inequality and social exclusion are so damaging.

The powerful effects of inequality are also transmitted from parents to children. Different parenting styles can be understood as expressions of a social structure in which an adult’s lifelong experience of adversity, inequality and low status, is passed on to children and serves to prepare them for the kind of social reality they are likely to have to cope with. Growing up in a society in which you must fight for what you can get and cannot trust others, requires a very different emotional and cognitive development from what would be needed if you were growing up in a world in which you depended on cooperation and mutuality, in which your security depended on the goodness of your relations with others.

People often assume that the benefits of greater equality are confined to the poor. Not so. The differences in the performance of more and less equal societies is so large because the vast majority of the population benefit from greater equality. Our research shows that even the well-off, well-educated, middle classes benefit from living in more equal societies. Whilst the benefits of greater equality are largest lower down the social ladder, even at the top of society people live longer and do better in more equal societies.

The reason why the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor is, of course, because we are all caught up in status competition. We all worry about keeping up appearances, about what others think of us, and how we are judged.

So whatever the political and moral arguments, the evidence shows that inequality damages us all and imposes huge costs on our societies, as they struggle to cope with the fall out.

But what about the transition to sustainability? Greater equality contributes to the ability of societies to reduce carbon emissions in two different, but important, ways. First, coping with climate change is a major test of people’s willingness to accept policies for the sake of the common good -- for humanity at large. Greater equality is a crucial determinant of how societies measure up to this test. Because people in more equal societies feel they can trust others, are more involved in community life, and less out for themselves, those societies are also able to be more public spirited: they spend more on overseas development aid; they recycle a larger proportion of waste materials; they score higher on the Global Peace Index, and their business leaders think it more important that their governments abide by international environmental agreements.

One of the most important obstacles to reducing carbon emissions is consumerism. Here too greater equality has an important role to play. The pressure to consume is driven substantially by status competition, which is in turn increased by inequality. People in more unequal societies work much longer hours and are more likely to get into debt -because money and status are even more important. But what people wish for, and consistently express in national surveys, is more time with family and friends, and less ‘materialism’. Greater equality reduces the need to strive -- against our better judgment -- for material wealth to the detriment of our relationships with one another.

And finally, our research shows that there are quite different roads to greater equality. Not only are there ‘big government’ solutions, involving redistributive taxes and benefits, but there are also ‘small government’ solutions, involving smaller earnings differences even before taxes. Sweden is an example of the ‘big government’ approach. It has large differences in earnings but then redistributes income through taxes and benefits. In contrast, Japan has smaller earnings differences to start with, does less redistribution and has a much smaller welfare regime.

We find rather the same contrast among U.S. states. Compared to many states, Vermont has high taxes and social expenditure, but its next-door neighbor, New Hampshire, has amongst the lowest. But, in their different ways, both are among the more equal states and, like Sweden and Japan, they enjoy better health and fewer social problems.

The implication is that it doesn’t matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. Societies, politicians and policy makers can follow a range of pathways to lower inequality -- but reduce it they must. Our future quality of life, and our ability to live within the environmental constraints, depend upon it.

Richard Wilkinson is emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. Kate Pickett is professor of epidemiology at the University of York.