When economic growth does not serve mental wellbeing

For decades, a nation’s economic growth has been used as a measure for its residents’ wellbeing — it shouldn’t be.

How did this begin? In 1776 Adam Smith published the seminal Wealth of Nations in which he extolled the merits of economic growth and its mechanisms that he argued would raise the living standards of all. In 1937, on the heels of the Great Depression, the measure of gross domestic product (GDP) was created as a measure of the economy, a composite of all the stuff created and consumed by a nation, so that this growth could be explicitly tracked. The Institutions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) that were subsequently formed aggressively utilized this metric in their investment decisions and policies. In response, countries the world over began to vigorously chase the growth of this metric. GDP growth meant more stuff, and more stuff, meant better living standards or greater prosperity. And so, GDP took root in the collective psyche as a proxy for prosperity and by extension, national wellbeing.

Many warned from the start that GDP was simply an economic measure not to be conflated with national wellbeing. After all, there is more to life than stuff. And in the last decades as the criticism has grown, so too have the attempts to create alternate, or at least complementary, metrics of prosperity. The Human Development Index, for instance, includes elements such as life expectancy and educational attainment in addition to Gross National Income. The Legatum Prosperity Index includes various aspects such as safety and security, personal freedom, investment environment, governance and infrastructure. But how do we know which of these are the right factors? How much does life expectancy matter? Is it more or less important than the investment environment? To answer these questions, we need a way that our collective prosperity is adjudicated. Where is that? By whom?

The human mind is our only arbiter of the external world. It is therefore only within it, in its sense of wellbeing and capability, that prosperity can exist. But what is prosperity of the mind? It is not simply happiness or satisfaction, which are judgements of a moment or circumstance, but rather a myriad of factors that constitute a sound capability of the mind to navigate life circumstances. Call this mental wellbeing. What is the relationship of our collective mental wellbeing to our collective stuff?

My company Sapien Labs’ project Mental Health Million has developed a measure of mental wellbeing, the Mental Health Quotient or MHQ, that aggregates a self-assessment of 47 attributes of mental function on a scale of impact to life function. These elements include elements such as self-image and self-worth, emotional control, drive and motivation, focus and concentration, optimism and conversely, feelings of sadness and distress, fear and anxiety, and so on, to position individuals on a spectrum from distressed to thriving. It is a measure that captures not just happiness but rather a 360 view of mental wellbeing, the closest measure we have to the prosperity of mind.

Measured recently in large samples across the internet-enabled populations of 34 countries, it might come as a surprise to Adam Smith, that 250 years on, many of the countries with the most stuff or highest living standards (the Anglo-Saxon countries, most prominently), have the poorest overall mental wellbeing. Indeed, the aggregate mental wellbeing was significantly negatively correlated to various economic metrics from per capita GDP and GDP growth to Gross National Income — that’s right, significantly negatively correlated. Even the Human Development Index is negatively correlated. Why so?

Does this mean that more money or stuff does not drive greater prosperity of the human mind? Of course not.

Poverty that results in homelessness, hunger or a significant struggle to make ends meet substantially detract from mental wellbeing. And higher incomes do matter. It’s just that other things, far less tangible, seem to matter more.

Former United States Attorney General  and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy perhaps put it best in his speech at the University of Kansas all the way back in 1968.

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things,” Kennedy said. “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

In this context, it is not surprising that it is cultural measures that are most significantly correlated with the mental wellbeing of countries. The 2021 Mental State of the World Report shows, for instance, that countries ranked higher on individualism tend to have poorer mental wellbeing while those with high in-group or family collectivism had more positive mental wellbeing. And the pandemic gave us a view into just how profound the impact of social isolation is, particularly for young adults ages 18 to 24. This group saw an overall drop of 15 percent down the mental wellbeing scale from 2019 to 2021 across all major English-speaking countries, correlating significantly with the stringency of lockdown measures implemented by each country.

Correspondingly, the number of young adults with a mental health status that would be considered a psychiatric “disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association grew from 21 percent to 54 percent, with a dramatic increase in the percentage harboring suicidal thoughts, the sense that life was not worthwhile.

Thus far, much of the narrative around mental health has focused on the economic cost of mental health challenges as the imperative to address it. But in the end, without mental health and wellbeing, there is a fraying imperative for life. It is time to invert the lens and ask not how our mental health can serve the economy and its growth but how our economic paradigms can best serve our mental wellbeing.

Measuring and tracking our collective mental wellbeing gives us an opportunity to understand what factors drive it and detract from it, and by how much they do so. From paradigms of individualism to the perils of social media, our current cultural environment appears to play out like a war zone for the human mind. As much as the physical injuries of war are not simply the problem of the medical system but of the political and economic frameworks that precipitate war, and the practices of war, our challenges of mental health are as much a battle of our political and economic frameworks and the culture that they breed, as they are a challenge for health care.

To serve the prosperity of mind is to serve humanity. And it is only when we track and understand what drives the prosperity of our collective mind that we can truly create systems that serve it.

Tara Thiagarajan, Ph.D., is the founder and chief scientist at the nonprofit Sapien Labs. Follow her on Twitter: @tarathia

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