This week’s edition of The Economist features two short articles of direct relevance to our annual theme, “Health, Wellness, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The first article takes a look at the world of healthcare, profiling an innovative South African insurer that has been able to contain costs, and thus premiums for its clients, by promoting preventive measures through application of a concept from behavioral economics: the “nudge”. The idea is that society can effect good behavior by constructing a “choice architecture” that nudges people to make better choices without dictating specific outcomes or even significantly impinging on their sense of personal freedom. In the case of South Africa’s Discovery group, its clientele participate in a reward program modeled after the ubiquitous frequent-flyer concept in the travel industry, expect people earn
miles points by exercising, eating well, hitting personal targets such as lower body weight or blood pressure, and the like. And just like frequent-flier miles, these points can be exchanged for a wide range of perqs, including reduced insurance premiums, discounted groceries, and even free vacations.
Besides speaking directly to our annual theme of Health, this story also highlights a major trend in global affairs. More and more of the world’s innovative ideas, along with the fastest economic growth, is coming from so-called emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, rather than the core countries of the 20th Century. As the article notes, Discovery has rapidly grown into South Africa’s largest health insurer and is now expanding its model to the United States and Britain; the direction of innovation has reversed. Thus, while the cover of this same issue of The Economist features a picture of the late Steve Jobs—icon of 20th-Century American innovation—one does wonder where the next Steve Jobs will come from. Perhaps he, or she, also will be American, either by birth or by immigration, but it seems increasingly likely that the world’s next great innovator will instead hail from the likes of Brazil or India or Turkey instead.
The second article considers happiness, in the context of the ongoing Great Recession and its impacts on next year’s U.S. Presidential election. Citing a recent paper by the Princeton economist, Angus Deaton—which itself was based on the daily survey of subjective well being conducted by Gallup—the average American’s level of overall happiness has been remarkably stable throughout the last four years; there was a notable decline in self-assessed well-being when the financial crisis first struck in 2008, but it recovered quickly in early 2009 and has remained essentially unchanged ever since. One of the implications for Deaton is that happiness, while an important concept, perhaps is ineffective as a measuring stick for shaping public policy. How useful, after all, is a measurement that is more sensitive to “the arrival of St Valentine’s Day than a doubling of unemployment”?
From the perspective of global citizenship, a second observation by Deaton is even more significant. Half of the respondents who take Gallup’s survey are first asked a series of questions about politicians and related political issues, before then proceeding to the section of the survey where they self-assess their happiness and well-being. These randomly selected respondents who first answer questions about politics report significantly lower levels of happiness than the other respondents, who don’t get asked such questions. Just thinking about politics, it seems, bums us out. On the surface, this is not a very encouraging conclusion for those of us who advocate for democratic civic engagement and see it as a necessary stone on the path toward happiness. But Deaton’s observation might also suggest that what we need as global citizens, in the pursuit of life satisfaction and personal happiness, is active political engagement. Simply reading or watching or listening to the news, and occasionally talking politics with our friends and family—and maybe even voting every now and then—is not enough. True civic engagement, and true global citizenship, involves a commitment to something far more active and substantial.
… Health, Wellness, and the Pursuit of Happiness! From a list of seven nominated choices, this was chosen by an online vote of Santa Monica College students, faculty, and staff to be our annual Global Citizenship theme for 2011–12.
As with our first two annual themes, Water and Food, we’ll explore the overlapping issues of health, wellness, and happiness through a variety of curricular and extracurricular activities. In addition to our already existing online presence at Twitter, Facebook, and the SMC website, this new Tumblr site gives us a virtual space in which to share and discuss ideas.
To get us started thinking about the academic year ahead as we ease into the summer break, here is how we have initially set up our theme:
Health is a centerpiece of the United Nationsʼ efforts to promote human development, and modern society has made profound strides in fighting infectious disease and raising life expectancies around the world. Yet we still find the provision of care and the promotion of healthy living to be a perennial challenge, one that knows no boundaries but nonetheless reveals gaping inequities within and between countries worldwide. Moreover, even when physically healthy, we struggle to feel truly well; despite living (on average) longer and more comfortable lives than countless generations of human beings before us, a true sense of happiness and well-being often eludes us. What does it mean to be healthy? What does it mean to be happy? And how can we get there?
In addition to this prompt, here is just a small sample of the rapidly growing collection of articles and resources online concerning the question of happiness and well-being. Follow us on Tumblr as we will be adding to this list throughout the year ahead.