Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The stresses caused by inequality

I am reading a very interesting book at the moment, The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  It has made me think a lot about the particular stresses of modern life, and whether different countries are subject to different stresses.  Since I am off to China again in a couple of weeks, it has become particularly relevant for me to look at what stresses we in this country are exposed to compared with those of the Chinese.

I am fascinated by the main message of the book which is how much extreme financial inequalities, such as those now experienced in this country, affect everybody, not just the poorest.  I was interested to see, for example that it was noticeable how local communities reacted in different ways in New Orleans in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in contrast to the Chinese response to its devastating earthquake in 2008.  In the much more settled local communities in China there was much greater cooperation and help for the survivors than in New Orleans, with its very deprived communities, where looting and violence were the norm.  Sadly, of course, as China, too, becomes an increasingly unequal society, with the rich now becoming the super-rich, the support of a local community is becoming as rare as in this country, where the rich are now holed up in their large houses behind barriers, and the poor hammer at the gates with rage. 

All this increases the stresses of modern life in terms of mental health, alcoholism, obesity, infant mortality, the crime rate and much more, but equally affects those living behind those barred gates to a surprising degree.  This is a terrible downward spiral, encapsulated for me in the headline yesterday in the Guardian newspaper which states baldly “Divided Britain:  Five families own more than poorest 20%:  Handful of super-rich are wealthier than 12.6m Britons put together”.  Such enormous discrepancies in wealth, the authors of this book say, are the direct cause of some of the most complex types of modern illness, called, somewhat wittily, “anxiety disorders”, “affluenza virus” or “luxury fevers”, as the status anxieties that a consumer society fosters in everybody cause increasing levels of stress, unknown by me as a child during and after the second world war, when we didn’t go shopping for ever more tantalizing goods because the shops were empty.

Nor did we feel the lack of this at all.  I remember quite happily listening again and again to the few gramophone records we had, and reading again and again the few children’s books we had, and not feeling deprived at all – rather the reverse.

The message obviously is that where there is satisfaction with our lives, whether we are poor or rich, the healthier and happier we will be.  And the more status stress we cause ourselves by trying to emulate all the acquisitive habits of the rich (their clothes, their homes, their furnishings), the more illnesses we will suffer from.  There is a lesson here for acupuncturists, since our aim must surely be to help our patients live as peaceful and as fulfilled a life as possible.

Do read this book.  It opened my eyes to many reasons for the increasingly stressful environments we live in now, and made me understand why the enormous inequalities we see in the world today inevitably lead to increased ill-health.  We need to strive for greater equality for the sake of the health of all, not just of the poor.

This reminds me again of what my Indian friend, Lotika, asked me:  “Why do you in the West want to be happy?  We just accept.”  And this is what even the poorest Indians sleeping on the streets do, as I observed them as they smilingly made way for me on the pavements, and pointed out helpfully where I had to go as I stood waiting for a taxi at Delhi station.  I learnt a lot from that.  I could not imagine the same thing happening in this country now.  It is more likely that, in the same situation, far from being offered help, my handbag would be snatched from me.

1 comment:

  1. This is a subject close to my heart and I have pondered over it for many years. We all know that equality is best but achieving it seems further and further away. I wonder whether the pendulum effect is happening and that things will only change when inequality has reached it's ultimate destination. We can see what is happening but it is still a problem of what to do when the majority of people are trapped in their search for happiness rather than peace. Perhaps realising our own helplessness is part of it? This must have been going on for centuries, and there are always a few brave people trying to show us how misguided we have become. And so it goes on..