Economy Goes Down, Health Goes Up

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.



13 Responses to Economy Goes Down, Health Goes Up

  1. charlie wills February 21, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Without growth the system collapses,,No way to pay the Huge Debt we have earned supporting the mega International corporations..Funny how the CEO of Phillip Morris is well paid, on other companies board of directors, speaks globaly well respected in the Corporate world and is responsible for over 400,000 Deaths a year in the US alone?

    When the economy tanks poor people suffer more then ever, the stress of not having needs is a sure Coritsol Booster to the Moon,,,leading to all the major diseases out there and less money to pay for help..

    Cortisol is the number one killer says the American Academy of Anit-Aging Medicine at their most recent conference last weekend.Causing Inflamation and antioxidents to attack us.
    Oxidative stress leads to cellular disfunction and degenerate disease period.

    Unemployed stress more then ever after 20,30,40 years of brainwashing that if your not working there most be something wrong with you,,

    Traveling alot I see your 1,2, and 3 as a great thought that I wish whole heartly was true but very unrealistic…as I have assisted quite few to stand tall in these tough times..

    You honestly think the Greeks are happier today then 5 years ago?

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar February 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Loved the article, Jeremy! And Charlie, you also bring up good points. But could it be that cortisol goes up even more when people work too much – which is usually the case in our competitive work structures, and note that I didn’t say they worked well or smart, just said they worked too long – so could cortisol be higher when they work too much and multi-task too much and compete too hard versus when they have less money but more time to smell the roses and go for a walk?

  3. Ryan G February 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Excellent review — thanks Jeremy!

    @Charlie, I wholeheartedly agree with your critique of the insane debt accrued from supporting and subsidizing megacorp’s with little interest in human well-being. As to some of your other points, I see a wholly different way of approaching them than continuous, unsustainable growth:

    1. “Leading to all the major diseases out there and less money to pay for help” — Let’s attack the problem at its root then — the price of medical care is outrageously inflated and should not cost what it does, especially in America. Furthermore, many of the most expensive diseases to treat right now (partly due to their prevalence) are diseases of affluence — ie, obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc. As the authors and Jeremy point out, less affluence means less overconsumption, more time and energy for prevention and healthy behaviors.

    2. “Unemployed stress more than ever after 20, 30, 40 years of brainwashing that if you’re not working something must be wrong with you.” Agreed. But then isn’t the right thing to do then to stop and negate the brainwashing? As opposed to feeding into it?

    3. “Without growth, the system collapses.” No. WITH growth, the system collapses. Inevitably. I’m speaking of the ecosystem, within which the economic system resides. The former is a physical reality, the latter is a man-made construct. (Note, I’m not saying that both aren’t important with very real, physical implications. Just that one is immutable, the other is not.) Finite planet, finite resources –> unending growth spells certain collapse. This isn’t greenie doomsaying — this is basic logic.

    The point of the book, as I understand it, is that growing the economy past a certain point (which the US has reached) has diminishing returns, and doesn’t contribute to human well-being — which is, presumably, what the economy is for anyway. Plenty of data to support this.

    It’s a tricky problem no doubt — I’d be interested to hear more about your (or anyone’s) ideas.

  4. charlie wills February 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

    MJ and Ryan for Co-Presidents of the New World Order!

  5. Ryan G February 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    Okay, thank you for starting the discussion. It was certainly enlightening.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) February 21, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I’ll second Charlie’s nomination! Ryan, especially love your ideas. I found one of the authors of the book above because he started a non-profit called Take Back Your Time. I think it’s He argues that we need to move away from measuring success by productivity hours and we should be converting our wealth into more leisure time. Isn’t it amazing that with all of the technology, all of the innovation, all of the wealth, all of the success, that we are working more than ever before. In the 50s they used to talk about the age of technology coming in the future when we would have machines to do our work and we would all be able to live a life of leisure. Here we are in the future and we have all the machines, but none of the leisure. What’s wrong with this picture?

  7. Ryan G February 21, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    Thanks Jeremy. Yes, John DeGraaf is great. You should also check out his book Affluenza, and The Happiness Initiative, which he coordinates as part of Sustainable Seattle:,

    All of which emphasize moving from GDP to GNH, and further make the connection between positive psychology and sustainability.

    Also relevant, yesterday Thich Nhat Hanh made the case in the Guardian that the solution to our present problem is mindfulness, not economics. Definitely worth a read/watch:

  8. charlie wills February 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Today is a extra beautiful day in fractional geometry,

    the day is 22 master builder,,Highest master mason

    the year is 5 plus the month 2 = 7,,,plus the day 22 is 29 = 2+9=11 master advisor, portal to enlightenment…
    22 plus the 11 is 33,,,Master Teacher Master Healer,,,wow what a day ,,,all 3 master numbers at once,,,,

    Only if your aware does it work,,just like the coconut preventing death on a Island with no water..

    I know last night was the most powerful meeting I ever had in my life, probably shaping the next 9 year easly….Good Luck all…

  9. charlie wills February 23, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    Ryan you nailed it,,

    Took my first Buddist vows in the early 80’s,, freed my soul forever..

    What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, SO POWERFUL!!!!!

    rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.

  10. Ryan G. February 23, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    Yes, and it’s so great to see science (ie, positive psychology) backing up many of these millenia old ideas. And furthermore, even more heartening to see Buddhism fully support and embrace the science — willing and confident enough to go where it goes. How refreshing.

    For another timely article germane to this discussion, check out David Robert’s piece in Grist yesterday about the delicate balance of social justice and economic growth:

  11. Charlie Wills February 25, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    Ryan my Mon!
    Everything you’re saying here is great, but words alone will not fix anything unless you have the $$$ to back it up and finance these things,,you’ve probably watched the last third of this to see how that could be done, and even though it has been explained before it still is not being done or even remotely researched on how to..SAD!

    Zeitgeist: Moving Forward 2011 spread ( search on Youtube}

    So as most talk and talk and talk who makes the decisions has the Power,,,the Power is in the hands of the GREED,,,until that changes Nothing will change,, yea you can give a few examples of this and that but on the scoreboard you and me are still getting our butt’s kicked…!!!!

    That sad sad movie “Who killed the Electric Car” is another great example of Who has the Greed and Why what your saying can not work until the hands of Greed are Gone…How will that happen? That’s the million Dolla question…

    Look at those Buddhist’s setting themselves on Fire to make a point,,,so sad,,,even that has no effect….The Dinosaurs died out as the could no vole fast enough and the Weak (birds an mamals) inherited the Earth,,,will that repeat it’s self again?

  12. Jeremy McCarthy February 26, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    Thanks for bringing Buddhism into the discussion. I too have become increasingly fascinated with Buddhism, particularly due to the way more and more science seems to be supporting these ancient teachings. I wrote about this here and received some interesting comments from the Elephant Journal community (far more knowledgable about this than I am!)


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