Children before cash
Better childcare will do more for our wellbeing than greater affluence
By Oliver James
In 1968, an American president said: "In the next 20 years we shall become much richer, but will we really be any richer as people - happier?" That Richard Nixon was the author of these words should not istract from their wisdom: beyond a certain point, greater affluence does not increase happiness or mental health.
True, within developed nations the poorest classes are more liable to be mentally ill than the richer ones. True also, the poorest developing nations are less well off emotionally than developed ones. But once you have the income of someone among the top two thirds of a developed nation, whether ye be as rich as Richard Branson or a humble psychologist, it makes no difference to your happiness or mental health.
For instance, 37% of a sample of 49 super-rich people were less happy than the national average. In another study, there was no difference between the happiness level of 22 lottery winners and comparison samples of average people or paraplegics.
A recent cabinet office report confirmed that, despite huge increases in affluence compared with 1950, people throughout the developed world report no greater feelings of happiness. However, thus far, the government has ignored another crucial fact: not only are we no happier, we are actually far more prone to mental illness. That advanced capitalism, especially the US variety, is making us ill is not something New Labour wants to think about.
A 25-year-old American today is between three and 10 times more likely to be suffering from major depression than in 1950. A normal modern north American child would be mentally ill by 1950s standards - answering the same questions, the average child in the 1980s reported as much anxiety as child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. Similar rates of increase have been recorded in Britain.
The implications are profound. If, after our physical welfare, our wellbeing is what matters most, then personal or national economic growth should cease to be the primary goal of the majority of people or politicians in developed nations. The ecological case against such growth is already overwhelming. But on top of that there is a psychological one: we should make the meeting of the needs of children, especially infants, a higher priority than economic growth.
Scientific evidence (as set out in my book) suggests it is the care we receive in the first six years, not our genes, that primarily determines our capacity to enjoy our unprecedented affluence in adulthood. The earlier a child is neglected or abused, or had parents who divorced or suffered financial misfortune, the greater the likelihood of later disturbance.
Early experiences set our emotional thermostat. The effects are on the patterns of electrical brainwaves and chemistry, establishing a basic template with which we interpret the world. For example, lasting damage to cortisol levels (the fight-flight hormone) is found in children whose mothers were depressed when they were infants. The very size of brain structures can be affected. The volume of the hippocampal region of the brain (which regulates emotion) is 5% less in women who were sexually abused as children.
These, and hundreds of similar findings, pose a major challenge to the recent tendency to invoke genes when trying to explain our individuality. Taken alone, they are convincing reasons to dispute the cosy notion that the difference between you and your siblings is caused by "a bit of both" nature and nurture. But on top of that, the studies of identical twins on which heritability estimates are based are very suspect. Despite dozens of false dawns, molecular genetics has still to identify replicated genetic loci for a single mental illness, apart from Huntingdon's Chorea and familial Alzheimer's Disease: no genes have been found for depression or schizophrenia, for example. Twin studies are still the main plank of the genetic argument.
The Gene Illusion, by psychologist Jay Joseph, not only shows that the fundamental assumptions of twin studies may be faulty; it also casts grave doubts on the validity of that staple of TV producers, Thomas Bouchard's Minnesota study of twins who were reared apart.
Furthermore, even if you take twin study results at face value, they do not support the "bit of both" theory. Only a handful of any aspects of human psychology exceed 50% heritability, however selectively you sift through the studies. In the case of mental illness, heritability does reach 50% in some rare and extreme cases, like schizophrenia and major depression. But the vast majority of our emotional problems are "minor" depression and neurosis and genes play only a small role in causing these - 30% at most, probably much less. If twin studies are to be believed, genes play little or no role in causing individual differences in many important behaviours, like relationship patterns, heterosexual attraction preferences and criminal violence.
The fact that there are huge fluctuations in rates of problems like depression, divorce and violence also calls the role of genes into question. There were just 6,000 crimes of violence against the person in 1950; in 1998 there were 258,000. In 1857, the last year that an act of parliament was required to get a divorce, there were five. It was only after the second world war that the rate rocketed, from 12% of marriages to today's 42%. Scientists who claim that divorce or violence are half heritable have no legitimate retorts to this overwhelming evidence for the role of the environment in causing these problems.
Based on all this: if it is true that increased affluence does not translate into greater happiness or mental health once a person has reached a certain basic level of wealth within a developed nation (around £15,000 pa); if it is also true that once you have achieved that level it is the quality of your early care rather than genes that primarily determines your capacity to enjoy your affluence; if it is further true that a crucial ambition of politics should be to improve the emotional wellbeing of citizens; then politicians should be reorganising our society with the goal of improving the quality of early care rather than of increasing economic growth.
Others are better qualified than I to specify what "reorganising our society" towards this goal would entail (such as the recent proposals of Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics). Most would surely entail us emulating Scandinavian societies (who, it just so happens, tend also to be among the top 10 most successful economies), rather than the US.
If you are looking for a roadmap for your third term, Tony and Gordon, here it is: a total rethink of our society's goals and shape based on meeting the needs of small children.
The Good Drug Guide
mental health in the third millennium
Are You Happy?
Just For Chemists
A Pill For Every Ill?
The Pursuit of Happiness
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Depression and Chronic Pain
The Futile Pursuit of Happiness?
Happiness and Modern Medicine
Big Pharma and Madison Avenue
Happiness: a Buddhist Perspective
Neuropsychiatry and Personal Identity
Happy topdogs and depressed underdogs
Pharmaceutical Roulette or Consumer Freedom?