Questions about the economy have consumed the world media of the past few years. We ask, “what is wrong with the economy?” and “How can it be fixed?” But few people have asked the question we should be asking . .. “What’s the economy for, anyway?”
This is the question that authors John De Graaf and David K. Batker ask in their new book (aptly titled,) “What’s the Economy For Anyway? Why it’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness.” Throughout the book they question governments’ reliance on economic growth (GDP) as a sole measure of success in spite of the fact that GDP growth is correlated to a variety of negative societal outcomes including crime and prisons, less leisure time and lower quality of life, and overconsumption of natural resources.
Economists and positive psychologists often talk about the “progress paradox” in the U.S. showing that as we have risen in wealth over recent decades we haven’t seemed to be able to convert that wealth into greater happiness for our citizens. We attribute this paradox to a variety of factors including the relative nature of happiness (we are only happier if we are doing better by comparison, not when everyone is doing better,) the paradox of choice (wealth brings more choices, which leads to greater stress and more regret from all the options we pass up,) and the “hedonic treadmill” (the fact that we quickly adapt to positive changes in our environment and so happiness is elusive and seems to always be just out of reach.)
But there is one seemingly uncontroversial area where economic growth is better for people, and that is our health. Economic progress has brought with it medical knowledge, technology and innovation that keeps us healthier and living longer. And yet, the most shocking finding of De Graaf and Batker’s book is that American health has gone up during the recession of recent years, not down. They cite a report from economist Christopher Ruhm showing that a 1% rise in unemployment during a recession corresponds with a .5% drop in mortality.
Apparently, in every recession, health goes up and not down. The authors report a variety of reasons for this surprising finding:
1. Although suicide rates go up for people who lose their jobs, many people are able to use their newfound free time to learn new things, take up new hobbies or passions, socialize with friends and family, and generally think more about their health.
2. For those who are able to hold onto their jobs, although they have some increased stress from taking on the burden of more work and less people, many employers will also reduce overtime, encourage job sharing, or consider work furloughs that give people more free time to pursue leisure and health related activities.
3. In general, “people have more time and less money.” They have time to sleep, exercise and visit with friends and family more than before. And with less money, they drink less, smoke less, and eat less.
GDP is a measure of consumption, For people at the poorest end of the economic spectrum, an increase in wealth can help them get access to food and medicine that they desperately need to live a healthy lifestyle. But consumption is not always healthy. Once you get above the poverty line, healthy consumption quickly becomes overconsumption and begins to take a negative toll on our health and our happiness. Taking the foot off the GDP gas pedal from time to time can be a good thing.
References and recommended reading:
De Graaf, J. & Batker, D. K. (2011). What’s the Economy For Anyway? Why it’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness. Bloomsbury Press.