Healthier, Wealthier, Not Yet Wise
In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin introduced the notion, since refined and elaborated, that happiness does not correlate neatly with wealth. “Economic growth does not raise a society to some ultimate state of plenty.” Once basic human needs are met, wealth does not predict life satisfaction. So what does?“Economic growth does not raise a society to some ultimate state of plenty.” - Richard Easterlin Click To TweetWell, to quote Easterlin, “the only sure conclusion is that we need much more research into the nature and causes of human welfare.”
Research into “human welfare” is today the plausible purview of a good number of relatively siloed social science verticals, including economics, psychology, health, and education. Anyone looking to answer the question, “how can I make these people happier” is left with the unenviable task of sourcing, sorting, and integrating the bits of wisdom being generated across these disparate fields, and then creatively applying such wisdom within their available means.
The unsung heroes
Did you know that well-being in this country has not improved in 50 years?
Among the unsung heroes navigating this morass of data and jargon are the HR professionals in this country charged with, among other things, ensuring the satisfaction of their company’s employees. Compensation, as Easterlin first demonstrated, is a necessary but preliminary piece of that puzzle. Benefits that attend to employees’ needs like basic healthcare, are another.
Protecting employee welfare beyond those essential investments is not a straightforward endeavor. Did you know that well-being in this country has not improved in 50 years? This despite the fact that we’ve nearly doubled our life expectancy in the last 100 years, and tripled our GDP per capita since 1960?
The (seemingly) bleak state of America’s well-being
We’re living longer, and making much more money. But we don’t feel any better off. In fact, the US happiness index has decreased in the last decade. We are less happy than we were in 2005! If you’re wondering why it’s so hard to help your employees feel better, you’re not alone.
And here’s another part of the story: reducing suffering. Twenty years ago, I decided to be a psychiatrist, both because the brain fascinates me, and because I wanted to help people suffer less. Internal medicine seemed well on its way to improving quantity of life – see above – and yet even in my relatively small sample of friends and family of reasonable means and physical health, it was obvious to me just how little had been achieved in the way of emotional wellbeing.
Unfortunately, psychiatry has stalled in these last 50 years, perhaps not coincidentally. Don’t be fooled by how much we’re spending in this area.
- Despite the fact that Americans spent $200 billion on mental health services last year alone, rates of all of the major mental health disorders have been unchanged for decades.
- The national suicide rate hasn’t budged in 30 years.
- The percentage of Americans claiming disability benefits for mental illness has increased 600% from 3.3 in 1955 to 19.7 in 2003.
- Even the pharmaceutical industry is giving up, with the largest firms dramatically reducing their investment in psychiatric illness over the last ten years.
The picture is so bleak it’s hard to believe, so don’t take it from me. Tom Insel, until very recently head of the NIMH, talks about all of this openly, and often. “Four decades of drug development resulting in over 20 antipsychotics and over 30 antidepressants have not demonstrably reduced the morbidity or mortality of mental disorders,”he wrote, just prior to resigning the highest psychiatric research post in this country.
Not only are we not happier than we were 50 years ago, we’re also, as a population, not less unhappy.
Stay with me, though – because there’s hope.
The work ahead: Accepting Easterlin’s challenge
In the generous context of human history, it makes sense that the work of improving the human condition has focused on removing ills. When you cannot afford to feed your family, there’s no other problem worth solving, unless perhaps your family is also about to be eaten by lions. For a species that’s something like a million years old, the current relative wealth and long lifespan of Americans may as well have onset yesterday. It’s not unreasonable that it’s taking us a half-century to recalibrate.
Fortunately, not all disciplines took their eye off the ball. A small subset of psychologists branched off in the last twenty years specifically to study satisfaction and happiness. They rejected their field’s overwhelming research focus on pathology to research, instead, “normal” people and how we find meaning. Still young, the field draws scientific influence from economics, behaviorism, and neuroscience, among others. Positive psychologists include both researchers, as obsessed with methods and statistical significance as any other psychological researcher, and clinicians, trying to quickly but carefully translate these findings for the betterment of the species.
When I left psychiatry a decade ago, I didn’t know what I’d do instead, I just knew that business as usual wasn’t working. My patients kept coming back to the hospital. My assessments of suicide risk felt dangerously subjective. It meant everything to improve even one person’s well-being, and we did. And yet it was clear to me that there were many more to serve, and in more effective ways.
Today, I join the incredible BetterUp team. It’s been my great honor to serve as a scientific advisor to this company for several years, through the development of prototypes and early products aimed at bettering the lives of American workers. Our coaches and tools translate the strongest, most current findings on improving life satisfaction from the lab to the workplace. We have accepted Easterlin’s challenge head on, fearlessly, for the benefit of as many users as we can help. Our users today find their work and home lives richer, their stress and anxiety levels diminished, their resilience, hope, and optimism flourishing. And our users’ colleagues share in these emotional benefits because, as it turns out, this kind of happiness is contagious, too.