Last week an all-Parliamentary group in the UK released a report on ‘Wellness Economics’. The report is part of the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ongoing intention to measure the well-being and happiness of the country’s citizens and is yet another cog in a really interesting global wheel that has been turning for some while.
With chronic illnesses and diseases on a continual rise, there has been a slow shift across western societies towards preventative health practices and proactive wellness. This report, with its emphasis on the necessity of tackling poverty and job instability, claims that this is still fundamentally about creating a healthy, hale and happy society: “We care about recessions because we care about unemployment, and we care about unemployment because we care about people’s well-being”.
Economics and well-being are, of course, intrinsically linked. On a private level, the pressures of having little or no money can cause stress-related illnesses to manifest as well as push people into making choices that also affect their health negatively, such as buying cheap, low-quality food or turning to drink, drugs or overeating as a panacea for their problems. On a public level, the consequences of an unhealthy society also creates economic as well as a social problems. According to the World Economic Forum’s Healthy Living Initiative the global economy will lose an estimated $47 trillion through what it calls chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – i.e. heart problems, cancer, respiratory diseases, diabetes, etc. – and mental health disorders. Such NCDs, it claims, have four common risk factors – tobacco and the harmful use of alcohol, plus physical inactivity and unhealthy diets.
Thus the link between economics and well-being is circular in nature with health influencing the economy and the economy influencing health. So, the fact that certain leaders now want to redefine this relationship is to be lauded – or is it?
On the one hand, making changes which are aimed at benefiting people is a good thing. Even the simple step of using the word ‘wellness’ when talking about ‘healthcare’ can make a difference. I mean, let’s be honest, when we say ‘healthcare’ what we really think is ‘sickness’ and ‘sick care’. Wellness, on the other hand embraces all that makes us feel and look good in the areas of fitness, beauty, nutrition, mindfulness & spirituality as well as traditional and alternative medicine.
Wellness also has a much broader reach across a lot of sub-categories that may, in more traditional thinking, have been viewed as on the periphery of the health industry – i.e. certain alternative medicines, spas, meditation, even yoga. However, there is a large body of evidence to now suggest that when traditional healthcare and wellness practices are approached holistically people’s overall health and well-being is elevated and healthcare costs are then reduced.
Nonetheless, while our countries’ leaders may really be trying to step in the right direction and this sideways move in thinking about peoples’ well-being is not just fancy footwork to please the electorate, do we really want them deciding what actually constitutes ideas of well-being?
For example, last year the former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg attempted to pass a bill to ban super-sized soda drinks being sold in New York City. This was part of the Mayor’s overall health policy for the city which included bans on indoor smoking and trans fats as well as an initiative to reduce salt in food. Bloomberg readily admits that his fight against Big Soda was as a direct result of the cost of obesity on the city and the country as a whole (Obesity incurs $190billion alone in annual medical costs in the US).
Yet, while some may view this as a positive health stance, the moral implications of a government deciding what people can and cannot drink and eat is surely questionable. Also, if this bill had been passed and then adopted by other US states and eventually other countries, would that have opened the door to heavy legislation on all sorts activities and behaviors deemed ‘unhealthy’ by powerful governments?
The same could be said for David Cameron’s introduction of the national happiness campaigns which have begotten the above-mentioned report. His Happiness Index received a lot of attention when he first discussed it nearly a decade ago. Yet while creating a Happiness Index as an alternative to GDP (which only measures economic output) may sound both progressive and positive, do we really need governments to concentrate efforts on promoting one single picture of mass happiness rather than creating the conditions that allow individuals to pursue happiness and well-being in all its kaleidoscopic colours?
In the main, I like that elected leaders are getting to grips with the idea that there are other measures outside of monetary wealth such as health, leisure, the environment, governance, housing, education and work-life balance that determine quality of life. However, just as GDP can’t tell you who in the country has their pockets full and who doesn’t because it only measures an average per capita output, doesn’t that also mean that a happiness or well-being index will also not highlight those individuals or population groups within a single ‘well-being economy’ who have possibly slipped between the cracks and are not doing as well as others? (And how depressing would it be anyway to realize you hadn’t achieved everything the index claimed you were supposed to achieve to make you happy?!)
It is interesting, and not before time, to see western politics turning down a path towards better health and living conditions for people. Nonetheless, this journey is one that needs to be taken in unison with the citizens whose lives they’re trying to change. Genuine citizen inclusion will make all the difference in ‘wellness economics’ becoming a real manifesto for healthier, happier lives for all.
What are your thoughts on this?